RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

15 Questions to Andrew McKenna Lee

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m good! I live in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s on your schedule right now?
At the moment, I am trying to finish two movements of a piece for electric guitar, three looping machines, and percussion. I am trying to get it finished over the summer so that I can have it ready for a recording session in the fall sometime. I am planning to release a CD next year of solo works and chamber music featuring myself as a performer on nylon string and electric guitars.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
I think this depends on whether one sees the proverbial glass as half full or half empty. I sense that modern concert music, especially orchestras and more traditional venues, are struggling to attract a younger audience who sees what they do as something that has cultural relevence to them. On the other hand, a younger generation of composers and performers are taking the initiative and finding alternative venues for performing their works, and attempting to create a community and audience of like-minded, if stylistically diverse, artists. This has always been a phenomena of New York, starting with the minimalists in the late 60’s (or maybe before?) and continuing up until the present. I’m not sure whether this is true in other parts of the U.S., or in Europe, but this is a trend I definitely see here. Hopefully it will continue for some time.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
The term “new music” as heard in my circles is generally used when referring to “contemporary concert music in the classical tradition,” which is in itself kind of an innocuous definition. I typically try to avoid using the word in connection with music, as I find it vague and insipid. The problem is that there are so many different kinds of music being herded under this umbrella that the word doesn’t really have any meaning anymore.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
I hear composition as organized sound.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Improvising is a large part of my compositional process, whether it’s on the keyboard, guitar, or any other instrument. I largely consider my pieces to be written out improvisations, or “non-realtime” improvisations in which I have the ability to go back and fix what I in hindsight consider to be “mistakes.” I’m generally a very intuitive and tactile composer; as a consequence, I like to interact and engage with instruments as much as possible during the creative process.

How would you define the term “interpretation”?
I’m not sure… I guess in a strict sense I consider interpretation to be bringing all of one’s knowledge and faculties to bear upon the realization of a work, but I think this is kind of a rigid and uninspired way of looking at it.

As a concert performer, I have often approached works by other composers by trying to come up with some sort of linear trajectory for the piece, and then finding some way to define it by making certain choices. Those choices are always based on the internal mechanisms of the work, and include parameters like fingerings, dynamics, color, phrasing- anything that’s alluded to somehow in the score. It’s important to make these decisions, because otherwise it would be impossible to physically learn the piece.

I think, however, that room has to be left for a performer to make some decisions in the moment, depending upon external issues such as the venue, the responsiveness of an audience, and just the state of mind of the performer himself. I think it’s these external circumstances that are the interesting ones, and that allow for a piece of music to really be a living and relevant thing with each successive performance…

It’s perhaps easier for me to say what I consider interpretation NOT to be. In this context, I think it should not be a prescribed and practiced set of technical and expressive directions to be executed upon an instrument. I think that too often performers are taught to play a piece “a certain way,” and this rigidity is in some sense partly responsible for the unbalanced emphasis placed nowadays on technical perfection in performance.

 Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?

I’ll take all four! In seriousness, though, I’ll take this opportunity to stand on the soapbox and say that I think some sort of approach to harmony is extremely important in a work. This is, I guess, very opinionated of me, but harmony is probably the most elaborate and sophisticated piece of aural technology ever created. The constant melding, pushing, and pulling of internal voices is such a beautiful thing- why disregard it?

Too often I go to concerts and hear pieces where there is little or no sense of a harmonic concept. I find works like this to be tiring. This being said, I can understand letting harmony take a back seat to some other musical idea, and I’m certainly not saying that there has to be some huge, elaborate harmonic concept to a work in its entirety in order for it to be successful. Indian music, for example, has very little going on with it in terms of harmony other than a drone, but that’s enough. It’s simple, but it’s there and it’s clear. I often feel that composers avoid using harmony simply because it is a difficult musical technique (perhaps “the” most difficult?) to implement and maintain over the duration of a piece. It’s also generally the first thing to go when composers are overly concerned with being “new.”

Perhaps I am admittedly projecting a bit here- harmony has always been the most difficult aspect of being a composer for me, and I have struggled greatly over the years (and continue to do so) in order to find some sort of harmonic language that works for me. It is starting to become a bit more intuitive at this point, but it has taken some time.

I also realize, of course, that everything I said above is relative to how one defines “harmony,” which is in itself complicated… Too much so to talk about in a paragraph!

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
I do have to differentiate between what I consider to be “sound art” and music, but I really have no idea where that line is drawn for me, personally. I think that many musical experiments are valuable because they advance the language of music and essentially add to its vocabulary, although the experiments themselves are not necessarily good pieces of music.

One good example of this is apparent in the relationship between John Cage, whose concepts and work I respect and admire, but whose music is largely lost on me; and Witold Lutoslawski, one of my favorite composers, who admitted that the idea of his “controlled aleatory” technique was largely inspired by hearing a recording of Cage’s Piano Concerto on a radio broadcast. Lutoslawski used this idea throughout the rest of his creative life (as did others) and went on to create some of the finest music of the 20th century.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
Yes, I think they certainly are two different types of music. I also believe quite strongly, however, that one does not necessarily have more value than the other. They are two different entities that serve two different functions. This being said, I think that they should be (and indeed are) connected at some level; whether that is embraced or rejected by the establishment is another matter. I hate to use yet another cliché, but they are essentially two sides of the same coin- the coin, of course, being musical expression in general.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
The only “duty” I think any artist should feel obligated to pursue is one of honest expression for the purpose of communication. Whether that expression is of a personal, spiritual nature or a socially and/or politically motivated one is somewhat inconsequential to me. I really think that communication is what music is all about- any composer who tells you that he writes music strictly for himself is either lying or in total denial!

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.
As much as I would like to say that this statement is completely false, I must concede that a working knowledge of the syntax of music and/or some sort of historical perspective can certainly enrich one’s listening experience, regardless of style.

On the other hand, naïveté can afford an intense and meaningful listening experience as well, and I certainly don’t want to discount that as less valid or real. Some of my most profound and memorable musical experiences happened when I was very young, before I ever really knew anything about music. They are indeed what drew me into it and inspired me to learn more.

But I also think that in order to get “everything” out of music that it has to offer, taking some initiative and educating oneself more about it will definitely yield a different, and perhaps, more intellectually oriented understanding of a composers intentions. This should not, however, come at the expense of the more direct and visceral aspects of musical perception- if it did then I would say it’s hardly worth it.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
I don’t know about that. I know a lot of good artists who have received grants and awards from government-supported institutions, and I know some pretty terrible ones who have as well. I think it’s just the nature of life that some people get what they deserve and others do not, for better and for worse…

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
All my good friends whose work I respect and love. We need the exposure and the money!

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
I once stood on a mountaintop in the Dolly Sods National Wilderness Area in West Virginia. It was dark, I was completely alone, totally naked, and listening to Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum on my cassette Walkman while watching a thunderstorm slowly roll up the valley towards me. I became totally terrified after about two minutes and had to put my clothes back on…

I don’t know- maybe something like that?

Andrew McKenna Lee
May 2007

Andrew McKenna Lee
Andrew McKenna Lee at MySpace

Related articles

Olga Neuwirth & Vinko Globokar: New works with col legno
Two composers of very different ...
15 Questions to Michael "Atonal" Vick
2005 was an important year ...
György Ligeti: Remembering Ligeti
A festival in Dublin is ...
Donaueschinger Musiktage: Make up your own Mind!
For 355 days a year, ...
15 Questions to Bernhard Wagner
Bernhard Wagner plays the guitar. ...
15 Questions to Balmorhea
Happiness can sometimes be hard: ...
15 Questions to John Morton
"It was something that I ...
Interview with Pawel Grabowski
This interview was conducted at ...
Manuel Göttsching: Celebrates his 55th Birthday
Manuel Göttsching, former head of ...
Interview with Graham Bowers
More than a year has ...
15 Questions to Bernhard Gal
You can, of course, listen ...
Interview with Aidan Baker
For years, Nadja was the ...
15 Questions to Neil Haverstick/Stick Man
The microtonal revolution is still ...
15 Questions to Andreas Paolo Perger
"Play a Concert" Andreas' internet ...
15 Questions to Carl Stone
Nowadays, laptops have become the ...
15 Questions to Alejandro Viñao
Alejandro Vinao does not like ...
15 Questions to Steve Layton
If there were something like ...
15 Questions to Aaron Cassidy
Wolfgang Schurig, who curates the ...
15 Questions to Alex Shapiro
If Alex had a vision ...
15 Questions to Benjamin Dwyer
Everyone seriously interested in music ...

Partner sites