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Electronic Dialogues/3

Scott Lindroth

Described by the New York Times as "a composer who defies classification," Scott Lindroth, 42, writes works for small instrumental groups and voices that somehow manage to sound simultaneously ancient and modern while occupying a space in the listener's consciousness that far exceeds their scale.  He has been on the faculty at Duke since the fall of 1990, having earned degrees in music composition from the Eastman School of Music (BM 1980) and the Yale School of Music (DMA 1991).  His most recent CD is titled "Human Gestures."


S/21: Why "Human Gestures?"  Is it a reaction to the increasing digitization and isolation of society? 

Lindroth:  The title "Human Gestures" grew out of discussions with folks at CRI about a cover design for the CD.  Originally I suggested using a close-up picture of a 6th-century mosaic in Ravenna.  You ask about digitization, well, those mosaics are an early sort of digital technology, using countless colored tiles to make images of human figures and landscapes, complete with color gradations, shadows, etc.   At the same time, when you examine these mosaics up close, you see the irregularities: the tiles aren't quite lined up, none of them are perfectly square, others are missing or are chipped.  That combination of a mechanistic approach to realizing familiar images with human "flaws" is enormously appealing to me. I want my music to live in that nexus between mechanism and human gestures. 

The mosaics didn't make onto the CD cover, but my comments led CRI's designer to come up with the hands, the star charts with constellations called "air pump," "sextant" and so on (it's the southern hemisphere), as well as the mechanical designs.

So, I actually like technology a lot, but it's more interesting to me in the realm of instrumental or vocal music rather than computer music, where technology is perhaps too self-evident to be interest me as the "idea" behind a piece of music.

S/21:  What were your earliest musical influences?  Whose work has influenced you most and why? 

Lindroth:  I guess my earliest influence was jazz.  I played saxophone (badly), and it gave me a chance to play in wind ensembles and jazz ensembles while growing up. My first compositions that sounded plausible were for these groups. I loved the work of Miles Davis in the late 60s, albums like "Nefertiti" and "In a Silent Way." I also liked the spin-offs from Miles' bands, especially Herbie Hancock's "Mwaandishi" groups and early Weather Report. I also listened to Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk, and a lot of "ECM" jazz (Manfred Eicher's label) during the 70s.

Writing for jazz ensemble, I loved the big brassy sound of Kenton with five trombone and five trumpet parts.  Sometimes the sax section would include two baritone saxes.  Just beautiful.  That band didn't always have very good improvisers, but the ensemble playing was thrilling.  I think working in this medium had a big influence on the way I hear harmony.

I also played piano, and my favorite music was and remains Bach.  His music is self-evident to me; it doesn't seem to require the same interpretive input from the performer that is essential to make a composer like Chopin come across. 

That pretty much sums up my pre-college influences.  Other composers and music became more important to me later on, especially Debussy's orchestral work.  I'm very interested in his music now because of the way he uses repetition.  Another composer that has a strong hold on me is Leos Janacek.  His use of repetition is certainly interesting to me, but his music can reach a level of expressive urgency that borders on chaos, like the end of his first string quartet, or certain passages in "Sinfonietta."  I love that.

As for more contemporary influences, I guess I have to distinguish between composers I admire and composers that influence me.  I admire music by the Bang On A Can folks: Michael Gordon's and Julia Wolfe's music can be mind-blowingly ecstatic in ways I hardly ever hear in music 
today.  David Lang has a musical wit and grace that continues to astonish me.  Steve Mackey's music combines a light touch and a loopy sense of continuity that is nonetheless precisely calculated.  Aaron Jay Kernis has an unparalleled ear for instrumental color.  Louis Andriessen has a fervent musicality and an enviably lucid mind.  He is able to come up with big "concept-oriented" pieces that still engage me at the level of the finest details.  All of these composers impress me, but I really don't know how to learn from them as influences. 

People have told me my music sounds like everything from Ravel to Birtwistle, but more recently I'm probably closer to Ravel in texture and harmony. Minimalism has had a big impact on me, but mainly as a way to organize harmonic progression and rhythm.  I like very much the
way Philip Glass's music sometimes seems to bridge historical periods in surprising ways.  Passages in some of his string quartets can be played with an expressive intimacy and warmth you might usually associate with Brahms, and yet it is clearly Glass's work.  I find that aspect of his work very interesting. 

S/21:  Your work has a kind of ethereal, almost sacred, quality.  I would have guessed that you have some affinity for the new (or newly popular) spiritualists like Arvo Part, Gorecki, John Tavener and even Joseph Schwanter who, I believe, was one of your teachers.  Is that true or am I reading too much into your setting of Hildegard's Visions?

Lindroth:  This is a tough question for me, because on the one hand I always do hope for some kind of revelatory experience while composing.  By this I mean the sense of discovering the music I write rather than constructing it.  In the end, I suppose it doesn't matter.  Constructed music can be as powerful for me as a listener as anything else, but when composing I really live for those moments of getting something that is self-evidently "right" down on paper.  There's a sense of tapping into something larger than yourself, even if the expressive content is not overtly sacred.

On the other hand, I'm not a religiously inclined person in my daily life, and for all of my talk of revelation while composing, the actual process is usually quite arduous for me.  Such revelations, if they come at all, are few and far between. 

Setting a text makes things more explicit than they would be otherwise, so your reading into the Hildegard text used in "Light" is fair game.  What really appeals to me is the sense of revelation coming out of a confusion. You don't achieve revelation through a step-by-step linear process. It just happens.  What was at one moment a swirl of confusing details suddenly becomes clear and self-evident.  That is what composing is for me these days.  The first piece where this really happened for me is my "Duo for Violins."  And my friends and colleagues all tell me that this piece was a real breakthrough for me.

S/21:  Your very beautiful piece Terza Rima is scored for oboe and "electronics."  Was this the first time you've used synthesized music in your work?  Do you plan to use electronics in works in the future?

Lindroth:   I had no revelations composing "Terza Rima," aside from getting the electronics to work!  I'm not completely happy with that piece.  The details always blur together into a general texture, so the listener can never engage with the piece at that closer level, which is something I miss.  It's probably a couple minutes too long, also.  But I'm proud of writing a piece that isn't about sample mangling or walls of sound.

I'm currently working on a piece in collaboration with a choreographer.  I call it a piece, but it's more like a soundtrack incorporating recordings of other pieces of mine with ambient sounds (a rainy day last summer) and other sampled sounds recorded at home.  It's been a lot of fun for me because the working process is so conditioned by the collaboration.  I'm making things up as I'm going on.  For example, I'll think, "now I need a violin," so I get in touch with a violinist and record something, or "it would be great to have Susan Dunn singing here," so I call her up and record her.

I've done a couple of other pieces with electronics which are extremely different.  There is a work for six instruments and tape called "Relations to Rigor" from 1987.  The tape part is a MIDI orchestration of another work for fifteen instruments.  The first performance of the original piece was so depressing that I thought an electronic realization was my only hope to salvage it.  I added a Pierrot ensemble playing newly composed music along with the tape to bring the energy of live performers back into the mix.

Some years later, Bang On A Can programmed the original version for fifteen instruments on a concert in Amsterdam, where it was played by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble.  It was a fantastic performance!  If I had heard that performance first, I would never have taken the trouble to do the MIDI version.

Anyway, that piece is quite intricate.  One listener likened it to a cactus, prickly on the outside, but succulent and juicy inside.  I really enjoyed that comment.  Most people are more aware of the prickly side of the piece, comparing it to Birtwistle's work.

There's even an older work for Synclavier from 1985, which I find quite embarrassing.  I had never turned on a computer before and was more or less desparately trying to get something to work without having a clear idea of what I was doing.  The piece actually worked okay in live 
performance (I played it), but it sounds very silly on recording.

S/21:  All of your recorded works that I've heard are written for a single voice or for a very small number of instruments.  They're almost as spare as Berio's Sequenzas.  Do you envision moving to larger scale works--symphonies, concertoes, opera?

Lindroth:  For a long time I was very interested in finding a way to compose longer pieces, which for me means longer than fifteen minutes!  But in the last year or so, I've come to realize (again) that my metabolism doesn't really work that way.  When I try to work on a large scale, it sometimes feels like running a marathon.  You get into a state of intense concentration and involvment which is not particularly comfortable.  It's like finding pleasure in strenuous exertion over a long period of time.  The payoff comes when you finally stop.

I can enjoy music that works that way, my own included. But lately I've become interested in music that doesn't make exercising the listener its primary expressive goal.  I'm not sure I'll ever figure this out, but one immediate consequence is that for the time being I'm content to be writing shorter pieces again. 

S/21:  Concert audiences are notoriously conservative.  How difficult is it for a contemporary composer to get his work heard?

Lindroth:  Well, I work hard here in Durham with my colleague Stephen Jaffe at Duke organizing a concert series of contemporary music every year.  We have a decent following that draws as much on the community at large as it does on music students and faculty.  I think living and working here over the past ten years has had an effect on the music I compose. 

While I greatly value experimental work that challenges my assumptions about music, I also recognize the value of music that does familiar things really, really well.  There is something miraculous about tapping into a mode of expression that is more precise and eloquent than one can possibly be in day to day life.  I don't mean to say that this quality exclusively belongs to more traditional kinds of music.  Rather, placing the emphasis on eloquence and precision (instead of on radicalism or accessibility, for example) better corresponds to my actual 
reactions to a wide variety of music that cuts across ideological divides. 

S/21:  Many contemporary composers have reached far more people through recordings than through concert performances.  Perhaps, that is true in your case.  I bought your Human Gestures CD because it had been reviewed favorably in the New York Times.  How important are these "alternative" routes to exposure to working composers?  Which way of reaching people do you prefer--live or Memorex?

Lindroth:  I think a commercial CD has a great deal of practical value for a composer; it shows that many people spent a lot of time and 
money to put the recording together, and maybe this does lead to things 
like a NY Times review or being taken seriously by other prospective 
performing artists. 

Live performance will always be something unique and special.  There is 
a real sense of responsibility and privilege that comes from being up on stage, and I believe the audience wants to "told" something 
that they aren't capable of saying themselves.  They want to be moved, 
elevated, challenged, dazzled, or entertained in such a setting, or at least I do.

It is almost always the live concert experience that inspires me as a 
composer, or gets me excited about a piece I'm working on. Right now I'm collaborating with a choreographer on a piece, the music for which will exist only on recording, but involves recordings of live performers as well as electronic sound.  What really gets me going is attending the rehearsals with the dancers, watching how he works with the company, playing my work for him and getting feedback.  That kind of active participation is what makes the process so meaningful to me.  I tend to dry up working in a vacuum, which for me means a musical life based on CDs and MP3s.

As far as internet music goes, it may be true that MP3s will decentralize the recording industry, but I find it a numbing experience to spend much time downloading and listening to MP3s.  Yes, it's convenient, the listener has complete control over what and when music is played, and one has access to a much wider variety of music than is available on CD. But the listening experience tends to be more casual and less concentrated, and I'm afraid that this pushes music even farther in the direction of being background noise.  That's not anything I aspire to, even if this is the direction we are heading. 

S/21: Tell us about your day-to-day life, your family, your work habits, and how you achieve a balance between career as a teacher, as a composer, and as family man.

Well, I teach full time at Duke, which means theory classes on Tuesdays 
and Thursdays, and a seminar of some sort on Wednesdays.  Of course, 
there are private students as well.  I spend a lot of time organizing a 
concert series here, choosing repertoire, booking players, attending 
rehearsals.  My wife is a clinical psychiatrist (no jokes, please) who 
works in a prison hospital. 

I really love teaching and sharing my love of the classical repertory with interested students.  And I love seeing students surprised by how much they may like a piece of computer music in an electronic music class.  Most of the undergraduates I teach are not heading toward a career in music, and very few know much classical music at all, so I feel quite strongly about imparting the "values" of that repertory: its discipline, precision, and intellectual rigor, and of course its expressive import.  I think John Harbison once said something about classical music representing the awareness of death, whereas popular music tends to celebrate life.  I like to cultivate an awareness of classical music operating at this primal level rather than getting tripped up by associations of classical music with heroism, nobility, and socio-economic stature. 

I value the concentrated work I do with individual graduate students in 
composition, trying to get inside their heads and feel their music.  It's a real privilege to be part of this mission.  Yes, it is a mission.

Composing gets done over the weekends and on week nights when things are really cooking.  I like to mix up my working times between day and night, because I get different kinds of ideas depending on the time of day I am working. Of course, summers are a great time for a teacher to be productive.  I find I am happiest when I am very, very busy.  The 
exhilaration of working hard is a great thing for me.  If I take time 
off to reflect, I begin to think about trying something completely new, 
and it takes me weeks to realize that I have to do what I know how to do and change from within that familiar process.  I'm not sure if this makes sense to anyone besides myself.  In any case, it's better for me to stay busy and not get distracted by such thoughts. 

S/21:  What are your five Desert Island disks?

Lindroth:  You are catching me at a funny time, because I'm very much absorbed in older music right now.  Here are six things that come to mind right away:

Schubert - late piano sonatas
Debussy - Jeux, conducted by Boulez with the Cleveland Orchestra
Bach - Well Tempered Clavier, both books
Monteverdi - Orfeo
Mozart - Marriage of Figaro
Mahler - Symphony No. 4

This even surprises me.  No contemporary music.  Orfeo and Figaro represent the music of optimistic youth.  The other pieces are consolation.  When it gets right down to it, this is the music that gets me out of bed in the morning.

Selected Discography:

Contact Davidge Publishing at (612) 787-0729 for more information. 
Here's a review of Lindroth's CD Human Gestures from the New York Times. 

Big Band (1994) 

January Music (1993) 

Two Part Invention (1986) 

A Fire's Bright Song (1981, revised 1987) 

Divino Furore (1998), solo piano 

String Quartet (1997) Audio excerpts here

Small Change (1997), for two marimbas 

Glide (1996), for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp, percussion, violin, viola, and cello 

Quartet (1994), for alto saxophone, piano, marimba, and percussion 

Mid the Steep Sky's Commotion (1993), for brass quintet 

Quartet (1993), for alto saxophone, piano, marimba, and percussion 

Light (1991, revised 1993), for mezzo soprano, clarinet/bass clar., piano/celesta, xylophone/glockenspiel, violin, cello 
Audio excerpt here

Fantasy for Two Pianos (1992) 

Duo for Violins (1990) Audio excerpt here

Whistle Stop (1990), for oboe solo 

Treatise on Tailor's Dummies (1989), for soprano, flute, tenor saxophone, bassoon, piano, accordion, percussion 

Stomp (1988), for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trombone, piano, harp, violin, viola, cello 

Relations to Rigor (1987), for flute, bass clarinet, piano, marimba, violin, cello, and tape 

Relations to Rigor (1986), for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, piano, percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello, and bass 

Pieces of Piano (1982), for piano solo 

Chasing the Trane out of Darmstadt (1979), for tenor saxophone and piano 

The Dolphins (1995), for soprano and piano; text by Richard Harteis (composed for the AIDS Quilt Songbook) 

Light (see Chamber works), text by Hildegard von Bingen 

In the Middle of the Road (1989), for alto, alto flute, and piano; text by Carlos Drummond de Andrade 

Treatise on Tailor's Dummies (see Chamber works); text by Bruno Schulz 

Terza Rima (1995), for oboe and live electronics 
Audio excerpt here. 

Relations to Rigor (see Chamber works) 

Syntax (1985), for Synclavier 

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