The recipe for 'new' American music
Whether it is through the story, the text, the music, or a combination of both, American opera has become more accessible in the last decade than possibly ever before. To many of us who perform contemporary American music often, it can seem simultaneously natural and elusive. The musical recipe card I have for Rachmaninoff isn't the same as Libby Larsen or Poulenc, or Jake Heggie. In fact, as the composer's musical influences increase, their recipe becomes more challenging to execute appropriately. The American composer entices the performer to understand their influences and treat them accordingly, and through their lens. One need only compare the settings of the same poem by different composers to see a clear difference in aesthetic. Knowing that a composer is influenced by Bartok, Frank Zappa, Debussy, and Joan Baez (who each had their own influences!) is a key point in realizing the sound in mind when composing a work. Even just considering the peculiarities of the counterpoint of Bach in comparison to that of Shostakovich puts our musical minds in extremely unequal sound worlds and interpretive styles, despite the obvious similarities. Furthermore, no one would dare perform a staccato the same in Handel as they would in Carole King. In printed notation alone, from just Brahms to Boulez, the number of expressions available for a printed score had increased exponentially and, therefore, the amount of specificity. Most successful American composers today have an immense aural experience, and one need only read a few of their bios to recognize that their palate is just as diverse as it is vast. It only serves to reason that these influences often -- either consciously or not -- make their way into the composer's own music. Not long ago, I attended a showcase for the music of the excellent composer Kamala Sankaram, who is one of a number of shining examples of this today. Her style is eclectic, influenced strongly by her Indian heritage, American popular elements, traditional Western opera, very likely her extensive background in cognitive psychology, and many others. A bit of knowledge of each of these areas would only serve to improve the performance of her work as they apply. A luxury of performing contemporary works is that the composer is often still living. Before preparing a new work, I attempt to speak with the composer at least once if they are available. Through the conversation, I usually hope get an idea of how they speak and their personalities, both of which will inevitably inform my aesthetic on how I begin constructing my interpretation of the piece, not to mention their specific thoughts on the work. The ability to ask a composer about the nuance and expression of their work is invaluable. Other times, it takes a bit of imagination and intuition. Our larger forms coming from the smaller ones, I will reference the song repertoire: I performed not long ago a song cycle by Lowell Liebermann on the poetry of Raymond Carver. One song, 'Afghanistan,' featured lines in the piano which sounded to me like an exotic wind instrument. I remembered seeing an Indian exhibit in a museum which included a shehnai, for which there was also a video demonstration. The timbre seemed to me a cross between an oboe and a bagpipe, and that is the sound I tried to replicate in the song. Having never met the composer, I have no way of knowing if my thoughts were in line with his, though the sound certainly fit with the interpretation I had in mind, and a few audience members did remark on the "weird sound" in that particular song--even on the piano. One can simply execute the notes on the page and *nearly* get by, though I find that usually leads to an uninspired, flat reading of the score. Our most beneficial work for our audience is clear expression, phrasing, tone, [...add any endless combination of musical elements], arriving at an interpretation that is reflective of the spirit of the work, and one that is true to what we perceive to be the intention of the composer and their aesthetic. The link between those is where we discover the craft, and that's where our recipe begins.