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15 Questions to Peter Ivan Edwards

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Relaxed after a three-month hiatus from teaching and two weeks in Bali. I'm living in Singapore.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I'm currently working on some pieces for CD projects. In particular, I'm composing a new piano work for Florian Hoelscher, a pianist in Stuttgart who performs with ensemble ascolta. Ascolta and I will be putting a CD together over the next year or so.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?

Singapore is a curious place for contemporary music. It is wealthy and cosmopolitan with excellent public education, high fluency in English, high speed internet readily available, and generous funding for the arts. Given all of that, it surprises me how very much in its infancy the contemporary music scene is. In a way, it is a great opportunity. My experimental trio, Ang Mo Faux, gives concerts that are probably made of premieres exclusively (we don't actually check up on that kind of thing). It's a bit like Back to the Future, where you know what is going to happen and you're going to be one of the people who makes it happen (like Cage did in New York 60 years ago).

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I think I was about seventeen when I started to compose. I was playing jazz piano, was interested in improvisation and then composition. I sought out a teacher and he was a pianist named Stefan Litwin who specialized in contemporary music. He taught me about serialism, Schoenberg, Boulez. I liked all of the organization. I continued my studies at Northwestern University and met a number of excellent people interested in experimental music, in particular, Amnon Wolman and Michael Pisaro. It wasn't until later that I experimented myself with indeterminate processes in music but nonetheless Cage was "a force to be reckoned with" once I became familiar with his work and thinking.

What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?
The first mature piece I wrote was in 2004, after composing for fifteen years. Realizing this was important for me. It put me on a different trajectory artistically. For my career, my move to Singapore - in particular my appointment as an instructor at a conservatory - was decisive. I had to learn to teach composition - both contemporary music and pastiche composition - and that forced me to go deeper into composition. If you don't teach, it's sufficient to know how you compose. But if you teach, you need to understand composition thoroughly enough to be able to help others reach compositional goals that you don't share. Additionally, the environment that I described earlier about Singapore was - and still is - relevant. Singapore encourages entrepreneurship and that includes the arts. There is no real definition here between art and entertainment, and entrepreneurial art is openly encouraged. In the US, where I grew up, it's much more complicated because there's still a belief that art exists and should be supported without concern for its profitability. But given that, art isn't actually supported. The Singaporean environment caused me to realize that aside from a number of European countries, the arts in developed nations has begun - or has been forced - to follow an entrepreneurial model. I'm still trying to come to terms with that reality.

What are currently your main compositional challenges?

Recently, I've begun to use algorithmic processes in my work extensively. Finding ways to incorporate the myriad of algorithmic possibilities has been a technical challenge for me. I've also been interested for a number of years now in the research of cognitive linguists like George Lakoff and Gilles Fauconnier. So much of their work, from metaphor to embodiment to mental spaces, seems relevant for music composition and musical experience. I'm trying to find a way to incorporate Fauconnier's idea of the double-scope blend, which I feel is related to my approach to working with musical objects.

What do you usually start with when composing?
Since I've been working a lot with the concept of musical object, I usually start with identifying objects and listing what their qualities and capabilities might be. Music is the result of the combination of pitch, duration, and amplitude. So, I make determinations about these qualities and their relevant sub-qualities (register, density, any kind of gestural qualities, etc.) so as to create a set of unique objects. Then, I move over to OpenMusic, a program for algorithmic composition developed at IRCAM, to develop the algorithmic patches to process musical events.

How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?

Although timbre is relevant to probably every composer, including myself, I wouldn't classify myself amongst the timbre composers. I'm more of an architect than a painter. I don't see a single relationship between timbre and composition. But I do feel that in contemporary music much is on loan from percussion and electronic sound. In Europe, extended techniques on traditional acoustic instruments have been more or less full incorporated amongst performers of contemporary music. So much of this extended sound world is percussive or noise-based in nature. The overtone series passed through electro-acoustic music right into the world of acoustic music in the work of Cowell, Stockhausen, and Grisey, amongst others. When I compose, I frequently think of cause and effect - a sound and its resonance - or ADSR to shape musical events. This isn't much different than what Helmut Lachenmann theorized in his Klangtypen der neuen Musik in the late 1960s.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Wow, the questions go from hard to harder apparently. Coincidentally, I studied at UC, San Diego around the time when both Brian Ferneyhough and George Lewis were there. There were incredible improvisers as well as composers in the music department. There still are. That environment made me realize that improvisation and composition are quite different things. I don't feel that composition is just improvisation written down or that improvisation is "real-time" composition. Improvisation provides opportunities for communication and communal music making. Composition is still largely a soloist's art. That is, composition is about a single voice. For me, part of the joy of listening to improvised music is hearing the creative dialogue between musicians. I also feel that it is hard for composition to not deal with structure and the history of composition, and I think that this is related to the process of composing (as opposed to improvising). Even Morton Feldman who was very much against the academic composer's focus on structure was obsessed in his own way with it. The freedom that he wanted his notes to have is really a mock freedom. I think this is an issue, particularly, of "paper music" composition (as opposed to electro-acoustic music composition). There aren't clear boundaries between improvisation and composition, and that makes answering this question difficult. For instance, where does Earle Brown's December 1952 fit in. In addition, structured improvisation, which is what I largely do with my trio, is quite a different game than free improvisation.

Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
This isn't black and white for me. Some processes are necessary during composition but are irrelevant for the musical experience. So, these shouldn't be experienced. But any musical moment can be described very generally as one of two things: being or becoming. The process by which one event evolves into another is experientially very relevant and the process by which that occurs should be able to be deduced by the listener. This is very much related to what I explored in my piano work Carve and Color, which is on my Object Lessons CD. In this work, I began to explore the idea of perspective in music and creating perspective through process.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to closely work together with the artists performing your work?

For me, expressing an understanding of the music through performance is interpretation. I've generally found that an experienced, sensitive, knowledgeable and musical instrumentalist who can interpret classical music can do the same with my work (and contemporary work, in general). They think in terms of shape and gesture, which is what music is really about, and they don't get caught up on aesthetics. If they have questions, they ask. I try to work with these kinds of artists. I like to work with the artists performing my work mostly because I like collaboration. In general, they don't need much input from me to create a compelling performance.

The role of the composer has always been subject to change. What's your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I try to write really good music because there is so much bad music out there. In an attempt to define this inexact and terrible word "good", I'll add that I try to compose music that is rich, thought provoking, modern, and original, and I try to consistently reach the musical experiences I aim to create. I also believe that education is important, and I fulfil that role to some degree through my work at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore. But I also see composition being a way to build communities through running collaborative composition workshop, music making with computers, workshops, etc., and I hope to explore that more in the future.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience?
Practically speaking, more work with other media would be good. People like contemporary music with dance and film. People are interested in sound installations when they go to contemporary art museums. The new music concert is really the suffering beast, not contemporary music. That being said, I hope the new music concert has a long life. There should always be a place for just listening.

Composers have traditionally found it hard to secure a living with their art. What are the financial realities you're living with and in which way, do you feel, could they be improved?
I'm fortunate because I have a comfortable university job that gives me time to compose and support for my creative endeavours. I don't make money from my music, generally. In fact, a collection agency in the US tried to find me because I was owed $600 from ASCAP and I had never updated my address with them. I never responded to the letter, but I have updated my account with ASCAP.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
I am one of those artists who doesn't dream of a "magnum opus". I agree with Cage: composing is work. So, when I have time to compose, I work. I discover, I question, I realize. And the music grows and changes. I have no idea what my music will sound like in 10 years. It's even blurrier 30 years down the road. I'll stick with the present and contribute what I can.

Intro by Hannis Brown

Image by Steven M. Miller

Peter Ivan Edwards Discography:

Object Lessons (Albany) 2010

Peter Ivan Edwards

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