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15 Questions to Frances White

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm fine. I'm at home here in Griggstown, NJ (about an hour away from NYC). Its been a busy summer. I have just completed two new pieces for the upcoming Interpretations concert (on Oct. 30 at 7:30 pm at TheTimesCenter in New York) that I will be sharing with composer Elizabeth Brown. These pieces are The book of roses and memory for viola, narrator, and electronic sound, and a piece (still untitled, although I'm working on it!) for viola d'amore and electronic sound.

What's on your schedule right now?

Well, the Interpretations concert is the big event that I have coming up this fall. Next I'll be getting started on a piece for trombonist Monique Buzzarté, and after that, a piece for Parthenia, which is a fantastic ensemble - a viol consort, superb musicians, who of course play a lot of renaissance music but are also passionate supporters of new music for viols. And this December my Walk Through Resonant Landscape No. 2 will appear as part of the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant's movie Milk.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the country you are currently living in?
Well, of course, living in the NYC area, there are all kinds of wonderful concerts going on all the time, so perhaps I'm a bit spoiled. It does seem like new music is getting a little more "mainstream" attention nowadays than it used to, say, 20 years ago. However, I personally would like to see a lot more diversity in the programming. Particularly at a lot of the larger venues, you do seem to hear a lot from "the usual suspects" and not as much from lesser known composers.

The "Interpretations" series is celebrating its 20th season this year. In which way does this bring back personal memories for you?
I have known about the series for a long time, and attended many of the concerts over the years. I have particularly warm memories of the first "Interpretations" concert to ever include my music, which was the fantastic violist Liuh-Wen Ting's solo concert at Merkin in the Spring of 2001. Liuh-Wen commissioned me to write A veil barely seen for viola and tape for this concert. It was my first opportunity to work with her, and the beginning of a long and wonderful friendship and collaboration with her. Liuh-Wen is in fact a featured soloist on the October 30 "Interpretations", and she'll be premiering The book of roses and memory, which I wrote for her and Tom Buckner.

What, to you, makes "Interpretations" stand out from the cornucopia of contemporary music series?

One thing that makes "Interpretations" really, really special is that it presents such an eclectic mix of different kinds of music. Its curated by Tom Buckner, and I think the fact that there is no one particular kind of "Interpretations sound" is a huge tribute to how genuinely open he is to all different kinds of beauty. It seems to be so easy for new music festivals and series to become, over the years, stuck in some particular aesthetic pigeon hole, but that has never happened with "Interpretations".

In which way, would you say, has "Interpretations" been marked by its location – is there something typical New York'ean about it?

Yes, I think there is. New York is home to such a wide range of wonderful music, and I think "Interpretations" reflects this variety and diversity.

Speaking about your own music: How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
My music is, and always has been, very much about sound, the sensual, spiritual experience of sound. Perhaps this is why I love working with electronic sound - I love to be able to make some of my sounds "by hand", myself, and then to give this actual, specific sonic space to the performers to find their place in. So for me, composing is always, first and foremost, about listening.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Well, I'm not much of a performer, so I don't really improvise. I mean, I guess I doodle around at the piano some, or play around with different sounds on my shakuhachi (I'm a student of the shakuhachi). But that's not what I would really call improvising.

In which way, would you say, is your cultural background reflected in your work?

In a recent review of my CD Centre Bridge, Robert Carl points out that although I work with electronic sound, often derived from nature or the real world, I also am "very committed to sweeping, more traditionally lyrical musical gestures". I think this is quite true - I'm very romantic, I think, as a composer (My two "rose pieces" that will appear on the "Interpretations" concert, The Old Rose Reader and The book of roses and memory, are quite shamelessly romantic, in fact - which to me seemed necessary, since these pieces are, after all, about roses, the most romantic of flowers! - and also about fairy tales). Also, I have always had a deep love of counterpoint, and I think that shows clearly in my work. In fact, I think all of the traditional compositional techniques that I love so much come through in my music.

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: "The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy." What are your thoughts on this?
I'm not much of a one for predicting big trends in music. But if I had to offer an opinion, I would say that the musical innovations of the 21st century will be all over the map, in all kinds of different areas. I think that's where we are, musically, right now - people are doing all kinds of different things, there is no one prevailing style or aesthetic or direction. I think this is a very healthy situation.

How would you define the term "interpretation"? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?
Oh, I love it when I have the chance to work with wonderful performers! They are the heart and soul of my music in many ways. There's nothing I love more than giving my music to a great musician, and then seeing them make it their own, and find things in the piece that I had never imagined. For this concert, in particular, I have been working very closely with David Cerutti, the wonderful violist for whom I wrote the viola d'amore piece. Because I didn't really know much about the instrument, I started off just having David show me what he can do, and learning about the wonderful sonic possibilities of the insturment. This concert in particular is very exciting for me, because all of the performers are not only great musicians but wonderful people, and the whole thing feels very much like a true labor of love.

Would you say that a lack of education is standing in the way of audiences in their appreciation of contemporary composition?
I do, at least here in the US. Unfortunately, American children get very little music education in grade school and high school, so the whole world of art music is pretty much off their radar. And then as adults, engagement with art music of any kind (classical or contemporary) is just not part of their lives.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without sacrificing their soul?
For me, the most important thing for a composer is that she has to be honest. You have to write the music that you truly, honestly hear. You hope people will like it, respond to it, etc., but you can't change it to make it more or less appealing to an audience. What could be changed is the way that new music is publicized. There is a lot of contemporary music out there that is beautiful, moving, engaging, that I think lots of people would love, but they never hear about it. So in a lot of cases, I think its a publicity problem. Unfortunately, most composers (myself included) are not very good at publicity!

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
True. Well, at least in the U.S. (I'm not familiar enough with how this works in other countries to speak about it). Unfortunately, in the U.S., there is so very, very little money available for the arts, and it usually seems to go to the big institutions. Its a terrible shame, for example, that the NEA no longer gives out grants to individual artists, just to big organizations. So unless you, as an artist, happen to have the right connections to the big organizations, you are kind of out of luck funding-wise.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?

Well, I'd certainly include some of Elizabeth Brown's beautiful music! And also at least one of my own pieces. But I'd also like to include music by some composers who I think don't get nearly the attention they deserve: Bunita Marcus (her string quartet The Rugmaker, for example, is just magnificent); Eleanor Hovda, whose music is incredibly delicate, immersed in the world of sound, and totally unlike any other music I can think of; and Annea Lockwood, who I think is one of the great lights of electroacoustic music. I'd have to include some Feldman, because I love his work so much, and some of the beautiful, austere late "number pieces" by Cage (perhaps the string quartet Four, which for me is a kind of apotheosis of pure counterpoint). And well, because this is my "fantasy" festival and I don't have to be consistent, I'd include lots of the beautiful, traditional meditative shakuhachi music that I love.

Frances White at "Interpretations"

Centre Bridge - electroacoustic works (2008) Mode

Frances White

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