Living Waters: An Interview with Composer Peter Lieuwen Print E-mail
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Written by David DeBoor Canfield   
Saturday, 09 February 2013

Living Waters: An Interview with Composer Peter Lieuwen

Discovering the music of an important new composer is always a great joy for me, but equally enjoyable is the possibility of meeting the man behind the music. Thus, it was with great pleasure that I had an opportunity to approach Peter Lieuwen with a few questions regarding his compositions and other matters in November of 2012.

Q: In this era when music lovers have an ever-expanding pool of composers from which to choose their listening and performance, how important is it that a composer attempts to set him or herself apart from the pack? Have you tried to do this in any conscious way?

A: This is an important and timeless question. Haydn, and I am sure a few other composers, said many years ago that above all, a composer must be original. As a colorist, I believe timbre is a strong identifying musical characteristic. Whatever personal voice I may have is really the result of placing myself in the role of the audience and asking, “What sounds would I like to hear from this orchestra or ensemble?” Then I write them.

Q: I’d be curious as to which composers, past or present, you’d count as particularly influential on your love of music, and in the kind of music you write?

A: I would have to say Haydn, because of his direct communication, wonderful syncopations and exuberance; Schubert, because of his “surprise” modulations; Debussy, the superb colorist; Stravinsky with his rhythm and color; and Copland and Bernstein with their distinctly American sound. As far as living composers, Joseph Schwantner and John Adams have also had a strong influence on my music.

Q: Judging from the notes, although you were born in Holland, you apparently weren’t there long before you came to the U.S. What brought you to this country? Were you in Holland long enough to become aware of and/or influenced by any of that country’s great composers, such as Willem Pijper, the Andriessens, Henk Badings, or Peter Schat?

A: I was born abroad of American parents. My mother and father were in Utrecht for a year as a result of my father’s Fulbright Fellowship. I didn’t become familiar with the Dutch composers you mention until graduate school.

Q: Seeing that you studied with a number of significant composers, I’m wondering if you can share what you gained in knowledge, technique, or inspiration from any of them?

A: Sure. Scott Wilkinson was my first theory and composition teacher. In reference to your first question, he once said to me at a composition lesson, “Stick to your guns.” Peter Racine Fricker was meticulous about notation including the “correct” mode, meter, row, or key area. Emma Lou Diemer was very inspirational and encouraging. Ed Applebaum was an excellent teacher in that he was very candid when critiquing a work in progress. If a piece or passage was weak, he let me know, whether I wanted to hear it or not. He was equally straightforward in his praise, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. Ed convinced me of the importance of learning to write for orchestra, which has become my preferred medium. Overall, I eventually learned that a young composer shouldn’t write to please his or her teacher, or to get a good grade. If you truly love the sounds you are creating, the result is often a convincing, original work.

Q: The University of Houston Moores School Symphony Orchestra sounds absolutely professional to my ears. How did you become associated with this group and Maestro Krager?

A: Franz Anton Krager is a very good friend and former colleague. Franz was on the search committee when I was hired for my first tenure-track position at Texas A&M. He was then music director of the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra. We had several successful collaborations with this orchestra. Now director of orchestras at the Moores School, Franz has presented 10 of my symphonic works, many of these premieres, with orchestras internationally. The Moores School Symphony Orchestra and the Texas Music Festival Orchestra (also on the Living Waters disc) with Franz conducting have been a composer’s dream as far as providing a platform for refinement of orchestral technique and placing my work before a wide listening public.

Q: Two of the works on the present CD ( Living Waters and River of Crystal Light ) have associations with water. Does this substance intrinsically have musical associations to your mind?

A: Yes. I love the last line of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It : “I am haunted by waters.” The reflective light and movement of water suggests a broad spectrum of musical possibilities. For me, natural phenomena are perhaps the strongest inspiration and influence on my music.

Q: What precipitated your idea of writing a work, Anachronisms, combining older styles and elements with newer ones? As you see in my review, I missed catching the older ones: Can you enlighten me about what specifically in this work comes from older composers, and which ones?

A: The associations are more general than specific. The work’s opening section

(Prelude) begins with a triadic flourish and evolves slowly with purely diatonic gestures. The second section (Etude) broadens the rhythmic and harmonic palette considerably with lively syncopations, neomodal and octatonic passages, and harmonies built on seconds and sevenths. The piece is really about the evolution of rhythm and timbre over time.

Q: Thank you for helping me with my review! How did you meet violinist Andzrej Grabiec?

A: I met Andrzej through Franz Krager as they are colleagues at the University of Houston. Franz suggested that I consider writing a violin concerto, and he said he knew just the soloist for it. He wasn’t kidding! Andrzej was wonderful to work with on the concerto. He was very adamant about having me write what I wanted to hear, and not worry about what I thought would be idiomatic for the instrument. If I inadvertently wrote something particularly awkward, he somehow made it work. We are both very pleased with the result.

Q: What is the significance of your use of the Welsh word for “star” as the subtitle in your violin concerto?

A: I have been very fortunate to have a long-standing musical relationship (20 years) with the Aberystwyth International Music Festival (Musicfest) in Wales. David Campbell, the clarinetist on River of Crystal Light now directs this excellent festival. During this time I got to know a wonderful woman, Mary Hopton-Pugh, who sang in the Musicfest Choir. She has since become a close friend and a most loyal supporter of my music. I sent her a recording of the Violin Concerto and she wrote back with an elaborate cosmic narrative about it. After reading it, I decided to use the subtitle Seren in her honor.

Q: What works may fans of your music look forward to from your pen in the coming year or two?

A: I have an orchestral work, Astral Blue (2006) that has been recorded for future release with the Moores School Symphony Orchestra. I am also completing a CD of my chamber music featuring the SOLI Chamber Ensemble, guitarist Isaac Bustos, Trio Bel Canto, Cumberland Wind Quintet, and Andrzej Grabiec. In addition, I am composing a new Chamber Symphony for the Georgian Symphony Orchestra.

Q: Do you have any words of encouragement for young composers looking to establish a career in music?

A: Be true to yourself and don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Pursue every available opportunity and don’t let rejection hold you back. Get to know performers. You’ll probably find that most of them are excited about new music. If you are patient and persistent, good things will happen.

Q: Thank you. I’m sure that younger composers reading those words will be encouraged and inspired, just as they will be in hearing your music!

LIEUWEN Living Waters. 1 Anachronisms. 2 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. 3 River of Crystal Light 4 1,3,4 Franz Anton Krager, cond; 3 Andrzej Grabiec (vn); 2 Jeffrey Lerner (cl); 4 David Campbell (cl); 2 Chester Rowell (bs cl); 2 Werner Rose (pn); 2 David Tomatz (vc); 1,3 University of Houston Moores School SO; 4 Texas Music Festival O ALBANY 928 (65:56)

The opening orchestral flourish of Peter Lieuwen’s Living Waters is quite evocative of the beginning of Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, with its light-infused, treble-rich trills. The piece quickly immerses the listener in the colorful sound world of the composer. Born in Holland, Lieuwen grew up in New Mexico, studying at the University there, and also at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he worked with such noteworthy composers as Peter Racine Fricker, William Wood, Edward Applebaum, Emma Lou Diemer, and Scott Wilkinson. Lieuwen’s music has had wide exposure through performances by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and many other ensembles. Since 1988, he has served on the faculty of Texas A&M University, most recently as professor of music and composer-in-residence.

Cast in a single continuous movement, Living Waters comprises several alternating slow and fast sections, the latter building up considerable palpable excitement. Along the way there is some technically demanding passage work, superbly executed by the Moores School Symphony Orchestra, which plays at an absolutely professional level under the secure directorship of conductor Franz Anton Krager. Special kudos must be extended to the unnamed trumpeter in this ensemble, whose demanding solo is flawlessly and brilliantly rendered. The work is imbued with various compositional techniques, including Klangfarbenmelodie, rhythmic overlays, and bitonality. While there are hints of Minimalism in this work, it is of the John Adams variety—driving and pulsing—and never obnoxious or unrelenting (I never will attempt to disguise my considerable dislike of Minimalism generally). Admirers of Adams’s work will find much to like in this piece as well, although Lieuwen is no mere Adams clone. I liked the piece so much that (rare for me) I immediately listened to it a second time before continuing my traversal of the CD.

Anachronisms, commissioned by the York Contemporary Ensemble, was awarded the first prize in the CRS National Competition in 1987. Scored for the rather unusual combination of clarinet, bass clarinet, cello, and piano, I was expecting (because of the title) something in an old-fashioned musical style. But no, Lieuwen sounds every bit as up-to-date in this work as he does in Living Waters. According to the notes, the piece presents a stream of musical events which suggest those of both older and newer eras. Even though the piece is tonal (as are all of the works on this disc), I don’t really hear anything particularly reminiscent of any bygone musical era. OK, there are hints of a few older composers (Messiaen, Louis Andriessen, early Ligeti), but I’m not sure that this is what is meant by the title. The structure of the work seems formally diffuse, but everything hangs together well, partly due to a lively rhythmic motive that permeates the second movement. The performers give a crisp and compelling performance of the work.

From the very beginning with its ethereal sonorities, Lieuwen’s Violin Concerto captured my interest and admiration. Subtitled “Seren,” the work was commissioned by the violinist who presents it here, the subtitle being the Welsh word for “star.” With the entrance of the solo violin line, the tempo and rhythmic vigor picks up considerably, and the first movement continues with abandon throughout its course. The composer states that he intended these musical gestures to represent motion across a Western landscape. That’s as good a description as any, but is not what I would necessarily have written to describe it before I read the notes. The second movement of this ingratiating work is a gently-lilting movement in 12/8 meter. Long supple lines in the violin are underpinned by a walking line in the harp and other instruments. It’s all really gorgeous as it allows the violin to do what it does best—to sing. The movement builds up to quite a dramatic climax at midpoint, followed by a section with greater rhythmic activity in both the solo part and accompaniment. The last movement recapitulates the vigor of the opening movement, albeit with rhythms of a more disjointed sort. A rather novel feature is the improvised cadenza preceding the coda. Violinist Andrzej Grabiec presents the entire work with the sure hand of one who is a master in respect to every parameter of the art of violin playing. His improvised cadenza perfectly suits the style and flair of the concerto. It should be transcribed and published with the work. I hope all those who read my review of Michael Colina’s superb Violin Concerto about a year ago rushed out and bought a copy of that CD. If you did, Lieuwen’s work is another concerto that will reward you in similar ways. It is, simply put, a major addition to the repertory for this instrument.

No less praise may be showered upon the disc’s concluding work, River of Crystal Light, scored for solo clarinet, harp, piano, and strings. A steady asymmetrical flow of eighth notes drives the opening section, which may be described as joyous and exuberant. The effect of the piano and harp overlaying punctuated chords (each instrument taking some of the notes) is stunning, as is the virtuosic solo clarinet part, brilliantly played by David Campbell. Harmonic movement often progresses by the relationship of the third in a most pleasing fashion. The title of the work is drawn from Eugene Field’s famous nursery rhyme which begins, “Winken, Blinken and Nod one night sailed off in a wooden shoe; Sailed on a river of crystal light into a sea of dew.” Given that it’s been quite a few decades since I’ve heard that, I hope I might be forgiven for having not immediately recognized the source of the title.

Every aspect of this CD is highly commendable. I cannot forego mentioning the superb sonics, which rise to the audiophile level. My hat is off to engineer Brad Sayles, and this release will be a strong contender for my next Want List. Presuming the Mayans were wrong and the world didn’t end between the time I wrote this and the time you were supposed to read it, don’t delay in getting your copy—just in case they missed the date by a few months. David DeBoor Canfield

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
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