On Sunday, April 7 at 7:00 pm, at National Sawdust (80 North 6th St., Brooklyn), composer Jeremy Gill showcases his compositions inspired by the words of Whitman, the philosophy of Pascal, and the film The Last Tango in Paris. In this Insider Interview, we spoke with Gill, whose upcoming composer portrait concert is presented by Chris Grymes' Open G performance series. More info online at nationalsawdust.org.
Classical Music Communications: What led you to a career as a composer?
Jeremy Gill: I started composing shortly after I started playing, and my first composition was performed publicly when I was 12 years old. My first instrument was saxophone and I played in a lot of concert bands, so my first pieces were written for the large ensembles in which I played. I only started playing piano later, and didn’t study piano at all until I was about 16 years old (I taught myself, and was playing a lot by then). By the time I enrolled at the Eastman School for my undergraduate degree I was certain that composition would be my main focus (oboe was my main performing instrument by then) as it has remained. Composing was a natural extension of my music making, and performance and composition have both continued in tandem.
CMC: How would you describe your composition style, and what other composers do you draw inspiration from?
JG: It’s impossible to describe one’s style, but I can say whose work I admire and emulate in one form or another. Among recent composers, George Rochberg and George Crumb were both teachers of mine and are important influences. György Ligeti is extremely important for me, particularly his earlier and later works (the middle, experimental music is less interesting to me). Bartók is hugely important, and I admire Stravinsky. Benjamin Britten is extraordinarily smart and there are several pieces of his I love (the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings above all; Turn of the Screw is nearly perfect). Arthur Honegger’s symphonies are fabulous and I return to them often. The classical period is the one for which I feel the greatest affinity – I never, ever tire of discovering a new Haydn menuet, and Beethoven is the most important composer for me of any period. Of romantics, Brahms is probably the dearest, although Schumann’s Lieder are central for me and I feel his symphonies are underrated (the second is perfect). I love Borodin – almost every note he wrote! I love much early music, too, particularly Monteverdi and Machaut, but there are many other gems that I come across by composers I’ve never known before (Tromboncino, for example).
CMC: How does your work as a pianist and conductor inform your compositions?
JG: All music making informs all music making, for me. When I am playing or conducting I am discovering things that will help with a compositional problem, or provide a model for a particular work. I am also a regular concert-goer. I think it’s very important to be listening to other people’s performances, new works, etc. Recordings are wonderful but some pieces do not work in real life acoustics and it’s important to hear that (for a composer, at least). I also perform my own music, and I learn how to clarify my works when I encounter problems conducting or playing my music.
CMC: How does literature inform or inspire your vocal and instrumental compositions?
JG: I am a big reader, and on some level I’m always looking for texts to set, but I’m inordinately picky. When I wrote my chamber opera I read 80 short plays before I found the one by Don Nigro that I used. I enjoy dense poetry – setting Hart Crane’s Voyages II in my Before the Wresting Tides was one of my greatest text setting joys – there was so much to find there and in his life. Georg Trakl’s poem Helian was a thrilling discovery – as I read it I knew it would be a song cycle. But novels can also inspire me and do. I am particularly interested in early 20th century European novels – the novelistic tradition that Milan Kundera is always promoting and defending.
CMC: What do you look for in a text?
JG: If I’m setting a text I generally need to have a moment – a point of revelation that is the text’s raison d'être. I also respond well to a narrative arc that can translate into musical form. And I really need to love the words, their rhythm and sound. I hate verbose texts with no innate sense of music and don’t understand the current mania for setting political speeches and “found” texts – even well-written prose that doesn’t have a musical affect generally won’t work for me.
CMC: In writing for a specific artist, how do you tailor your work to their character and style?
JG: Some players have very strong personalities that I respond to. I remember writing for pianist Peter Orth; I would listen to him perform and then go home to my sketches and try to imitate his playing with my music, imitate how I thought he might approach the ideas, and this helped me form the piece for him. I’ve written for the Parker Quartet a lot, and I love the way they approach music of all types, so just try to write them music that I think will fire their imaginations, based on what I know of their proclivities. For singers it’s generally quite straightforward – I find the sweet spots in their voices and write to those points. Many singers even have single notes that are particularly shimmery and expressive: I wrote some songs for Sarah Wolfson years ago and I loved her high A-flat so much that structured the songs so that she had a beautifully expressive high A-flat in each song.
CMC: What projects are you focusing your attention on lately?
JG: I am nearly finished with a four-hand piano concerto, which has been occupying me for over a year on and off. This current incarnation of the work (which is the final version!) was begun when I moved to NYC in September. I have three opera projects in mind, in various states of development. One, in collaboration with a London-based soprano and choir, may have a scene ready by the fall. I’m playing a lot lately, which is nice – this spring its some Elliott Carter with Lucy Shelton (she’s the best person to do that rep with!), lots of art song repertoire on a National Opera Center Emerging Artist Recital; conducting music by Carlos Carrillo, and playing my own Whitman Portrait at National Sawdust in April. My wife and I will be in Prague and Brno in June, where I’ll perform some recitals.