Stillness and Change: The Music of John Aylward
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Saturday, 04 February 2012

Stillness and Change: The Music of John Aylward

John Aylward wears many hats in the field of contemporary music, having received a doctorate from Brandeis University in composition and theory, both of which he teaches today at Clark University in Massachusetts. He is also an accomplished pianist, has founded the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble and the Etchings Festival, and is a widely published writer on music. He is also the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship, a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship from Harvard University, and a Fullbright Grant to Germany. He was awarded the first prize from the International Society for Contemporary Music. His compositional output includes a Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, a string quartet, and a sizeable body of chamber and electronic music. Our conversation was conducted via phone and e-mail in December 2011.

Q. You grew up in Tucson and its surrounding Sonoran Desert. What was that like culturally? Have you been inspired by the desolate beauty of the region in a similar way that Elliott Carter was when he visited the area and wrote his watershed First String Quartet?

A. The Sonoran Desert affected me less in a cultural sense and more in a natural one through its inherent beauty. Carter has mentioned being influenced by the “small sounds” in the desert, which is interesting because for me it is an expanse. In its silence, one can hear a pin drop, and I think that’s what Carter was reacting to, having come from a very busy and noise-filled metropolitan area; thus, for him the stillness of the desert was a novelty, and for me, it was the status quo.

Q. Has then the region in which you grew up, with its ambient stillness, reflected itself somehow in your music, thinking especially of Stillness and Change?

A. Yes, it has—the stillness of the desert is a fundamental source for me, and the change comes out of that. When one grows up in such a setting, transformation can come, as it were, out of nothing. The title Stillness and Change, however, comes from Louise Glück’s The Seven Ages. I think Glück must experience something of the same stillness and quiet in the New England landscape that I experienced in the desert. When I arrived in New England, I was looking for similarities, and artists and authors who could relate. I was taken by Glück’s interpretations of what I was experiencing of New England.

Q. How, in fact, has Carter’s music inspired and shaped your own? I certainly perceive some influences, but I also hear an underlying lyricism in your music that to some minds would belie the influence of Carter.

A. I got two things from Carter: An interest in discovering new musical resources—I have a lot of respect for how he refreshed his musical language in the late ’40s and ’50 s with new ideas he hadn’t yet tested. And I also received the feeling that artists need to continue to search for new musical forms and ways of creating musical continuity.

Q. Do you know, or have you met Carter?

A. I met Carter for the first time during his 95th birthday in New York City, and have also met him a few times in Boston, when he has had performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I also have gotten to know Virgil Blackwell, Carter’s caretaker, and Virgil’s wife, Ellen, through my time at Tanglewood. I remember Carter telling me at one point when I had told him that he was an inspiration to me saying, “You don’t need me to inspire you to write music!”

Q. With whom did you study composition at Brandeis? What was he like as a teacher?

A. My main teacher was David Rakowski, and his approach was to write as much as you possibly can, always looking to move on to the next piece. As a naturally fast writer, that was a good fit for me. I also learned from him to be very attuned to proportions and pacing, and to listen carefully and critically to my own writing. Essentially, he taught me to listen to music intuitively. But basically, write, write, write—the next piece will always be better!

Q. Your music has been described as juxtaposing a chromatic palette of pitches with the driving ostinati and motoric rhythms often associated with Minimalism. Yet your music is not Minimalistic. Are there any Minimalist composers who have had a particular impact on your musical aesthetic?

A. Those motoric rhythms can also be heard as classically inspired—I’ve always been drawn to the pulse and line of Mozart. As a pianist, I’ve played a lot of Mozart and Beethoven, and those kinds of motoric figurations are very pianistic. That’s not to say that I’m not influenced by Minimalism. Here’s the way I view it: The music of the past is like something to be harvested, and so I like to think of myself as gleaning from that harvest the best of all of the previous things in music. A composer can write a sonata, a fugue, a Minimalist piece, a 12-tone piece, and compare them. Whatever he or she takes out of all those different pieces that is similar in some respect—well, that’s his or her voice as a composer! Images of Departure, then, is influenced by the Minimalism of John Adams, but also by Mozart and the Classical era. I’ve harvested from each, and have, I think, found my own voice by doing so.

Q. You’re now a long ways from the Sonoran Desert! What led you to move to the East Coast?

A. My roots are in the East—my father was born in Boston—and when I was growing up, I became very close to my father’s identical twin brother, William, who was also my godfather. It was through him, during his visits to the Southwest, that I learned much about the East, including Brandeis, Harvard, and New England in general. So, when it came time to choose a school for my graduate studies, I applied to many schools in New England, and eventually settled on Brandeis.

Q. Have you thought about retiring back to the Southwest?

A. I have actually thought about it, but I doubt I will, because I’ve really come to love the culture of New England—there’s such a wealth of musical things to be involved in here.

Q. Having also studied piano for many years, do you consider yourself primarily a pianist who composes, a composer who plays piano, or a pianist-composer?

A. I feel that my work as a pianist—and I didn’t start on the instrument until comparatively late, 10 or 11—was a launching pad for my true path as a composer. I do really consider myself now first and foremost a composer, even though my undergraduate degree is in piano. One of my piano professors actually introduced me to the Second Viennese School and the Darmstadt School, and really opened my eyes up to various contemporary styles of music. So although my work as a pianist in my student days really shaped me and set the stage for my being a composer, it wasn’t until I got to Brandeis that I began discovering a lot of the non-piano works out there—things such as the Haydn string quartets.

Q. You also wear the hat of the theoretician, and have done research and writing on a number of topics, beyond the music of Elliott Carter. Could you expound a bit on some of the other areas of music that have piqued your interest?

A. Yes, I am also very interested in the music of Henri Dutilleux, who has been very influential on my work, especially in his free and colorful language and attention to form. Other composers who fascinate me include Olivier Messiaen, Gerard Grisey, and Stefano Gervasoni. I really love the music of Lee Hyla, who has helped me free up my own rhythmic language.

Q. I remember that Grisey even used to shake up traditional orchestral seating. At a premiere of a work of his that I attended in Los Angeles, the bassoonist was sitting in the chair in which the concertmaster normally would have been seated, and so on! It looked haphazard, but was doubtless carefully thought-out by Grisey in special terms. On another subject, given that you are both, how do you see the relationship of the music theoretician and the composer?

A. I actually see them as the same profession. The act of composing is an intuitive act of synthesis, combination, process, and production. The theoretician simply reflects on that. Theory today has become absorbed in numbers, but it’s really only a tool to help us better understand the impact that music has. Every expressive moment in music has a technical reason, and theory can help us understand how and why such techniques create expressivity. Today, theory may not tie itself so directly into the intuitive aspects of music, but I don’t believe that should be the case. For me, the theoretician is looking at why music is expressive.

Q. What motivated you to found the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble and the Etchings Festival?

A. The Etchings Festival is one of the most important things I’m doing now. I felt strongly that there were many young composers in the U.S. and elsewhere who were tremendously talented, but were not getting their music played. Perhaps they weren’t attending a prestigious school, or lacked resources in order to obtain performances. In 2009, I brought this to the attention of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and they agreed to host a festival at their Artist Space in Auvillar, France. My ensemble, ECCE, has been working with the Virginia Center on this project for a few years now, and the results have been phenomenal. The festival has become quite popular, but I believe that’s because we are keeping the focus on nurturing emerging talent and providing excellent quality recordings of the music performed.

Q. That makes a lot of sense! What good would it be to train the next generation of composers if their music was never heard? Classical music would die out …

A. Indeed, when I was growing up in the Southwest, I felt there was a lot of stuff swirling around me that I simply didn’t have a handle on, and I knew there were other young musicians in my same predicament. As George Tsontakis told me when I studied with him at the Aspen Music Festival, there’s great talent everywhere, and not just in the major metropolitan areas—the great centers of learning. So the festival is a way to foster opportunities that young composers need. The East Coast Contemporary Ensemble I view as an advocacy group for new music, and we do a tremendous amount in addition to our work with emerging composers. Take a look at all that we do at eccensemble.com.

Q. What is the most important thing you can teach your composition students?

A. I would like them to walk away with the feeling that the entire world is at their disposal. They should know that they have complete freedom to write anything and do anything: compose in any style, start a festival, improvise, work with electronics, do multimedia work, collaborate with other artists, or even stop writing music, if they feel so led, and work in a completely different setting. I just want my students to feel that they have a great amount of purpose and motivation in life and that they are living a life of their own design, which I think is truly an artistic life.

Q. I listened to your free improvisation, Substantive Take, on your website. What a fascinating synthesis of acoustic and electronic elements! Does your schedule allow you to improvise very much? Do you include improvisations in your piano recitals?

A. I’ve done a lot of that in recent years with Roth Michaels, who is a great composer, and is the new-media director for ECCE. We’ve done a lot of concerts at various venues around New England, including Harvard’s Paine Hall and Dartmouth College. It’s been a great way for me to develop my compositional skills, and especially to plumb the depths of electro-acoustic music. Roth and I work with MAX/MSP to create a kind of dynamic live improvisations and sometimes we’re not always sure how MAX will respond—it keeps our improvisations exciting to have a live electronic element involved. It’s opened up a whole new world to me, and allowed me to keep my performer chops active. When you think about it, improvisation is just instantaneous composition, and learning to do it can really free up a composer, and train him to write more quickly.

Q. Very interesting! Any concluding remarks?

A. I want to spread the word to your readers about the great work we do at the Etchings Festival. I hope your readers will have a chance to get to know some of the great emerging artists we perform in France each summer.

AYLWARD Stillness and Change. Images of Departure. Songs from The Wild Iris. Reciprocal Accord East Coast Contemporary Ens ALBANY 1283 (58:53 Text and Translation)


Last Updated ( Saturday, 04 February 2012 )