2011 Reviews         James Aikman, Composer

 

The following Fanfare reviews are printed courtesy of Fanfare Magazine, © 2012.

 

Fanfare Magazine, Jan/Feb 2012

FEATURE REVIEW by David DeBoor Canfield http://www.fanfarearchive.com/articles/atop/35_3/3530222.aa_Tremors_Far_Shore_Music.html

 

 AIKMAN Violin Sonata No. 1.1 Violin Sonata No. 2.2 Violin Sonata No. 3.3 Fantasy4 • 1Joshua Bell, 2Hidetaro Suzuki, 3Alexander Kerr, 4Davis Brooks (vn); 1Deanna Aikman, 2Zeyda Ruga Suzuki, 3Lisa Leonard (pn); 4James Aikman (elec) • CENTAUR CRC 2760 (49:38)

 AIKMAN Violin Concerto.1 Ania’s Song. Saxophone Concerto2 • 1Charles Wetherbee (vn); 2Taimur Sullivan (sax); Vladimir Lande, cond; St. Petersburg St SO • NAXOS 8.559720 (55:15)


Tremors From a Far Shore: James Aikman Sonatas for Violin
Audio CD; ImportCentaur


Venice of the North Concerti
Audio CDNaxos American


Aikman: Venice of the North Concerti
MP3 DownloadNaxos

James Aikman has mastered what I consider to be the most important parameter in the craft and art of musical composition, the flow of music. By that, I mean a sense of forward momentum that carries the listener along in a way that convinces that the piece could have gone in no other direction, despite the nearly infinite possibilities that exist at any given moment in the course of the work. The result is eminent satisfaction on the part of the auditor upon the conclusion of the work. All of this will explain the success of this native Indiana composer in the musical world.

As a violinist listening to his works for this instrument, I also quickly realized that they would be as rewarding to play as they are to listen to. The most effective music for the violin is that which allows the instrument to do what it was designed to do, that is, to sing, and the singing lines this composer provides for his soloist are most agreeable to the very essence of the instrument. The Centaur disc, devoted to Aikman’s chamber music for violin, opens with his Third Sonata, which is cast in three movements, Prologue, Quasi una Fantasia, and Toccata. The brief (barely more than one minute) prologue sets up the focal point of the sonata—its second movement—through a series of rather dense repeated block chords in the piano, after which the violin enters in a flowing line. The long middle movement has several discernable sections that contrast with each other nicely, and the improvisatory nature of the work dictates that the music is constantly taking unpredictable turns. Occasionally, obsessively repeated notes serve to drive the music to its several cadential points. Yet it is all extremely convincing, and the work concludes with an affirming and vigorous toccata.

The Fantasy eschews the piano in favor of an electronic accompaniment, definitively performed by the composer himself. Aikman’s interest in electronic music likely was fostered by his work with John Eaton, and although he was never a formal pupil of Eaton, Aikman assisted him in the production of the electronics in performances of his works at Indiana University. While the violin part is not dissimilar to that in the other works here, the electronic score is more complex and dissonant than the accompaniment of the piano parts, demonstrating Aikman’s ability to write significant music in disparate styles.

Aikman’s Violin Sonata No. 2 opens with an extended piano solo, drawing heavily upon syncopated rhythms and quintal harmonies. Withholding the entrance of the violin for about a third of the movement, an idea quite novel in itself, produces the effect of focusing the attention of the listener on the larger structure of the piece. When it does make its appearance in a soaring line, the violin at first appears to be quite distinct from the ethos of the piano, but it yields and adapts to the underlying piano syncopation, and the two instruments eventually meld together wonderfully. The work is cast in three evenly balanced movements, Habanera, “Homage in Memoriam,” and “Presence of the Past.”

Aikman’s First Sonata from 1986 closes the disc. As mentioned in the interview, this work won him a competition, and as an entrant in the competition myself, I was invited to attend the televised premiere, given by Joshua Bell and Charles Webb, former dean of the prestigious Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. This two-movement work opens with a hushed and haunting movement, the least tonally centered of any movement in the three sonatas. Its concluding “Fieroso” draws upon rather Bartókian turns of phrase to produce an exhilarating close.

The four violinists heard on this CD are all superb, and all have Indiana connections. Joshua Bell, a native son of Bloomington, needs no introduction here. His live performance on this disc is superlative in every respect. Alex Kerr (pronounced “car”) became concertmaster of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra at the amazing age of 26, and now is one of the most sought-after teachers on the faculty of Indiana University. Hidetaro Suzuki was for many years the concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and Davis Brooks is currently associate professor of violin at Butler University. The CD is worth picking up on the basis of the masterly performances of these violinists alone, as well as for the finely wrought accompaniments. My only extremely minor quibble is that in one or two spots in the Fantasy and Second Sonata, the violin is not heard as distinctly as I would have liked.

Aikman’s violin concerto, subtitled “Lines in Motion,” opens with a series of block chords that impart a sense of mystery in the walking tempo to which they are set. There is simply no other opening like this in any concerto that I can think of. The solo violin enters with an improvisatory line in the movement marked (not surprisingly) “Prologue/Improvisation.” After a time, the orchestra accompaniment drops out and the soloist continues alone in a cadenza of sorts—not one designed to show off his virtuosity, but instead his singing tone. The centerpiece of this work, as in the Third Violin Sonata, is the slow middle movement, which is longer than the two outer movements combined. Again, the violin’s ability to sing is given maximum display in this movement, and the effect that Aikman achieves in the whole mélange is quite haunting. The work closes with a moto perpetuo Toccata that is full of energy and gives the soloist quite a workout.

Ania’s Song is a pavane for string orchestra, and was commissioned by Thomas Beczkiewicz, one of the founding forces behind the quadrennial Indianapolis Violin Competition, for the birthday of his wife. Originally written for string quartet, the work is unabashedly tonal, no more dissonant than Barber’s Adagio for Strings (which also began life as the slow movement of his string quartet, as you will recall). I think I hear little snippets of the ubiquitous Happy Birthday to You song throughout, although this might be my imagination getting too carried away. Regardless, the piece is gently soothing during its course, favoring longer note values over shorter ones.

Aikman’s Saxophone Concerto springs from the soil of two earlier works, Call and Response for alto sax and piano and his Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano. The opening doesn’t waste any time in setting a dramatic and declamatory mood. While its underpinnings are consistently tonal, Aikman draws upon a rich and complex harmonic vocabulary to excellent effect. There is metrical complexity as well, meters shifting effortlessly to produce an unsettled feeling in the music. Aikman’s palette of orchestral sounds is likewise rich, effectively drawing upon the harp and piano for their colors. One moment of particular delicacy occurs where the sax in its lower register is accompanied by sparkles from the highest register of the piano. The second movement (“Refrains”) and third (“Waltz Rounds”) provide contrast to the first, “Call and Response,” and the work ends surprisingly abruptly—I wasn’t ready for it to end, wanting to hear more of this sumptuous music! But you know what they say: “Leave your audience wanting more.” I can easily imagine this work becoming a staple in the saxophone repertory, especially given the fact that there is still no overabundance of first-rate concertos for the instrument. The recording is enhanced by the velvet tone and exquisite musical phrasing of soloist Taimur Sullivan.

Aikman’s music will resonate strongly with anyone whose tastes encompass the music of the modern tonal American school. If you enjoy the music of such composers as Richard Danielpour, Daniel Asia, Judith Lang Zaimont, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and John Corigliano, I believe that you will find that the music of James Aikman compares extremely favorably with that of such masters. Both of these CDs are consequently very strongly recommended. David DeBoor Canfield

This article originally appeared in Issue 35:3 (Jan/Feb 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fanfare Magazine

Barry Brenesal

FEATURE REVIEW by Barry Brenesal

 AIKMAN Violin Concerto.1 Ania’s Song. Saxophone Concerto21Charles Wetherbee (vn); 2Taimur Sullivan (sax); Vladimir Lande, cond; St. Petersburg St SO NAXOS 8.559720 (55:15)

Venice of the North Concerti

Audio CD

Naxos American

Aikman: Venice of the North Concerti

MP3 Download

Naxos

 

Ever since the classical avant-garde became the rear guard, and polystylism became the watchword of the new avant-garde, I’ve been slowly building a library of modern music. It’s admittedly not hard to do. A number of fine composers have rediscovered the joy of writing for an appreciative public, and with all of the past open to perusal—whatever else holds true, we are the most historically literate of musically minded generations—nothing is off-limits either in itself or as part of a continuum. Aikman’s music was brought to my attention more than a year ago, and I’ve been looking forward to reviewing a new disc of his music.

The Violin Concerto, “Lines in Motion,” dates from 2009. It’s in three movements, the first titled “Prologue/Improvisation.” A restrained, clockwork texture of pointillistic notes, reminiscent of Stravinsky in the 1930s, provides striking contrast to the soloist, who enters roughly a minute-and-a-half later in rhapsodic vein. Figurative Baroque touches appear in the cadenza. The finale, a toccata, continues with similar Baroque allusions, and Stravinsky is once again in the mix. The lack of contrasting elements and the overly insistent, simple, repetitive rondo theme make for pretty dry fare, though. It’s the weakest section of the concerto. But the central movement, a “Quasi una Fantasia” that’s considerably longer than both its musical bookends together, is the expressive heart of the work, and it’s a winner. Starting with a meditation on material from the first movement, the violin soon gains a greater lyrical ambit, and the piece at times recalls Barber in its harmonies and thematic warmth.

Ania’s Song (2006) was commissioned by a co-founder of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Thomas Beczkiewicz. (The work is also a birthday gift to Beczkiewicz’s wife.) It’s probably just my imagination, but the opening intervals recall the start of the tune Happy Birthday. Calling it a slow-moving study of string textures would completely miss the graceful character of the piece, with an undertow of somberness.

The Alto Saxophone Concerto of 2010 opens with a movement titled “Call and Response.” (The work as a whole is derived from two previous pieces by Aikman, his Call and Response for alto saxophone and piano and a trio for clarinet, cello and piano.) It’s a moderately more astringent composition in its harmonies and moments of clashing bitonality, though never dense, and accompanied by Aikman’s frequent recourse to light, danceable rhythms. The second movement, “Refrains,” is a motoric toccata with a chant-like theme recalling Javanese gamelan music in its repetitiveness and intervals, but also features a contrasting countertheme in augmentation, and a subtler weighting of textures than in the Violin Concerto’s toccata. “Waltz Rounds” furnishes the relatively short finale. The dance itself is only suggested, both in rhythm and clichés, hinted at and playfully tossed about. It’s an attractive conclusion to a piece of music that is thoroughly entertaining, with very idiomatic writing throughout for its solo instrument.

The St. Petersburg musicians perform adequately under Vladimir Lande, but I find their readings a bit stodgy and uninflected. The “Waltz Rounds” in particular would have benefited from more vivacity and lift. By contrast, both Charles Wetherbee and Taimur Sullivan are first-rate soloists, with excellent tone and facility. The sound is good and forward.

In conclusion, this is a welcome album. Aikman demonstrates throughout a convincing control of orchestration and a subtle rhythmic palette. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he has at his command a nostalgic lyricism that creates still moments of grave beauty.

Definitely recommended. Barry Brenesal

http://www.fanfarearchive.com/articles/atop/35_3/3530221.aa_Tremors_Far_Shore_Music.html

 

Fanfare Magazine, Jan/Feb 2012

 

 

 

http://www.fanfarearchive.com/articles/atop/35_3/3530223.aa_Tremors_Far_Shore_Music.html

FEATURE REVIEW by Jerry Dubins

AIKMAN Violin Concerto.1 Ania’s Song. Saxophone Concerto21Charles Wetherbee (vn); 2Taimur Sullivan (sax); Vladimir Lande, cond; St. Petersburg St SO NAXOS 8.559720 (55:15)

Venice of the North Concerti

Audio CD

Naxos American

Aikman: Venice of the North Concerti

MP3 Download

Naxos

 

The title to the album, Venice of the North Concerti, had me scratching my head. A number of European cities have been called “Venice of the North,” most prominent among them St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and Bruges. So, color me strange if my expectations were raised for a bouquet of Baroque concertos by Dutch composers—Wassenaer and de Fesch, for example. But James Aikman, it turns out, is as American as apple pie, born in Indianapolis in 1959, a student of American composers Michael Schelle, Earle Brown, and Donald Erb, among others, and his works on this disc are recent enough for the ink to have barely dried.

So what is the Venice of the North connection? Well, Aikman was granted a Fulbright for postgraduate work in the Netherlands, where he continued his musical studies under Louis Andriessen and at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. He also earned a fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he now serves on the faculty.

Aikman was introduced to Fanfare’s readers in 24:2 in a review by Michael Fine of three of the composer’s chamber works. Fine called the music “accessible and inventive” and an “eclectic use of jazz-like rhythms and pop idioms merged seamlessly with the formality of the fugue.”

“Accessible,” of course, is one of those code words we invoke to telegraph to the reader that the music is listener-friendly, easy on the ear, and easily digested. I wouldn’t have expected a former student of Dutch modernist Louis Andriessen to fit that description, but indeed, Aikman’s music does. The Violin Concerto, “Lines in Motion,” was written in 2009. It’s in three movements, with both the first, Prologue/Improvisation, and the third, Toccata, being short and almost exactly equal in length. They serve as bookends to a 13-minute Quasi una Fantasia that is the heart of the work. Aikman begins his Violin Concerto with an orchestral introduction that, in its insistent repetition of a narrow compass of intervals, suggests a Minimalist at work in the style of Philip Glass. But with the violin’s entrance, the impression is dispelled, for this is to be a work of soaring lyricism, romantic beauty, and emotional urgency. Whether intended or not, I can’t say, but hints of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and other famous violin works of the 19th and 20th centuries permeate the radiant and intensely gripping central movement. Concertos by Barber, Korngold, Rózsa, and Lee Holdridge come to mind. Unquestionably, this is a major addition to the 20th-century violin concerto repertoire, and soloist Charles Weatherbee is simply fantastic. Raymond Tuttle reviewed Weatherbee’s Naxos recording of another fine contemporary violin concerto by Jonathan Leshnoff in 32:6 and called the violinist “first class,” an appraisal reaffirmed here.

Ania’s Song, a pavane for string orchestra, was written three years earlier. It was commissioned by Thomas J. Beczkiewicz as a birthday present for his wife, Ania Dowgiallo. Originally, the piece was scored for string quartet and is based on the musical notes A, D, B, the initials of Ania’s name. Note author Andrew Mead relates that Ania is of Polish royalty and that she and her family lost much in World War II. She emigrated to the U.S., became a citizen, and married Beczkiewicz. Recently, she was able to return to Poland to visit, and Ania’s Song is “a tribute to the nobility that lives within the sublime acceptance of life’s travails.” If you ever get tired of listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Aikman’s Ania’s Song should make a good substitute. Aikman’s piece, however, is not emotionally shattering in the same way Barber’s is. It begins slowly and softly, builds to a big climax, and then subsides; that much the two works have in common. But there’s almost a sense of transcendent peace and joy rather than unbearable sorrow in Ania’s remembrance of things past. Yes, you’ll shed a tear or two along the way, but you’ll also smile. What emotionally stirring and spiritually uplifting music this is!

Aikman’s Alto Saxophone Concerto, completed in 2010, is the most recently composed work on the disc. Though each of its three movements sports a descriptive title—“Call and Response,” “Refrains,” and “Waltz Rounds”—the work is more regularly patterned than the earlier violin concerto in that it is more oriented toward classical design; the first movement is the longest and weightiest, while the last movement is the shortest of the three and fulfills the role of a finale in its dance-like character.

In style and musical vocabulary, however, the saxophone concerto represents a fairly significant departure from the two previous works. It’s the most modernistic in its approach to rhythm, dissonance, and orchestral scoring. And while I wouldn’t characterize the music as atonal, Aikman himself points out that his material is derived from a series of overlapping triads that echo in construction the tone row Alban Berg devised for his violin concerto. Of course, anyone familiar with that work knows that Berg adopted Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique and then adapted it to his own ends, transforming it into a less rigid, nonassociative tonal atonality with roots in the postromanticism of Mahler and Zemlinsky and the Expressionism of pre-12-tone Schoenberg.

As noted a few years back when I reviewed a couple of CDs by saxophonist Theodore Kerkezos, I have a special fondness for the alto sax, it being the instrument my father played. I’ve not had the pleasure of hearing Taimur Sullivan before, though I see that two of his CDs have been reviewed by Robert Carl and Raymond Tuttle. In a score like Aikman’s alto saxophone concerto, which is both quite contemporary-sounding and unfamiliar, it’s a bit difficult to judge the playing of any artist, but to my ear, Sullivan produces a smooth, evenly balanced tone and navigates the technical obstacles of the score with ease and poise.

This is a wonderful release of enjoyable new works that comes with a strong “buy” recommendation. Jerry Dubins

 

This article originally appeared in Issue 35:3 (Jan/Feb 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.

 

Fanfare Magazine, Jan/Feb 2012

Maria Nockin

http://www.fanfarearchive.com/articles/atop/35_3/3530224.aa_Tremors_Far_Shore_Music.html

 

FEATURE REVIEW by Maria Nockin

 AIKMAN Violin Sonatas: Nos. 1–3. Fantasy for Violin and Electronics Alexnder Kerr, Davis Brooks, Hidetaro Suzuki, Joshua Bell (vn); Lisa Leonard, Zeyda Ruga Suzuki, Deanna Aikman (pn); James Aikman (electronics) CENTAUR CRC 2760 (49: 38)

Tremors From a Far Shore: James Aikman Sonatas for Violin

Audio CD; Import

Centaur

 

James Whitton Aikman was born in Indiana in 1959. While at a public elementary school, he was introduced to the piano, and he loved it. After completing high school, he majored in music at Butler University. He did his graduate work at the University of Indiana, where he studied with Frederick Fox and Harvey Sollberger. In 1993, he received his doctorate from that school. Meanwhile, his compositions began to win prizes around the world.

He writes, “To create, to seek one’s true potential, requires effort, consistent and dedicated. To write music is an honor. Too many take art for granted and this reduces its quality and its impact on humanity. We have a duty to aspire to the greatness that has been passed to us through the ages in all fields of endeavor.”

His Violin Sonata No. 1 won first prize at the 1987 Carmichael Competition. One of the judges was violinist Joshua Bell, who recorded it for this disc in 1989 with the composer’s wife, pianist Deanna Aikman. That same year Aikman wrote his Fantasy for Violin and Electronics, which features a live violin soloist playing with taped electronic sounds. The 1991 revised version on this disc has the violin alternating with the tape at first, but eventually both musical entities play together and the free interplay of the finale is fun to hear. Aikman has a particular interest in the relationship between the piano and violin in an equally weighted discourse and his forays into this area of music are most successful.

Aikman went on to receive a Fullbright Fellowship, which he used to study in Amsterdam with composer Louis Andriessen. The first thing that the Dutch teacher insisted upon was that his students find their own voices so that their music would always be entirely their own. Aikman wrote his Second Violin Sonata during his stay in Amsterdam. The first, Habanera, features the piano and uses the Cuban rhythm in music that sounds more Asian or contemporary European than Caribbean. The second movement, “Homage in Memoriam,” features the violin in a more lyrical pose. The third and final movement, “The Presence of the Past,” harmonizes the two instruments in a fast and furious duet that shows the tremendous virtuosity of violinist Hidetaro Suzuki and pianist Zeyda Ruga Suzuki.

The Sonata No. 3 was written in 2002 for Royal Concertgebouw concertmaster Alexander Kerr and pianist Lisa Leonard, who play it here. It begins with attention-demanding chords by the pianist, but soon dissolves into a lyrical line for the violin. There is, however, a returning figure that begins at a moderate pace and speeds up to a presto before it is finished. That gives the work a propulsive quality that holds the listener on the edge of his seat. Perhaps this is the reason that the Third Sonata is placed first on the disc. In any case, all the music presented is interesting and well played by first-class virtuosi. Bell and D. Aikman recorded the Sonata No. 1 at a live performance decades ago at Indiana University’s recital hall in Bloomington. The sound is good, but does not have the pristine quality of a more modern studio recording. The sound is somewhat clearer on the 1998 recording of the Sonata No. 2 with the Suzukis. The best sound is on the more recently recorded tracks containing the Sonata No. 3 and the Fantasy for Violin and Electronics. Maria Nockin

 

This article originally appeared in Issue 35:3 (Jan/Feb 2012) of Fanfare Magazine.

 

 

Susan Nisbett

December 18, 2011

(James Aikman’s) latest CD, for Naxos, is attracting brilliant reviews in the likes of “Fanfare” and “Gramophone,” which recently declared, “This could easily be a best-seller in the USA if there were some mechanism to make innovative American composers the talk of the town.”

His compositions are already the talk of the music world, and he’s won many honors and commissions. Now he writing a string quartet for the Parker Quartet, and he has a new work for the distinguished American flutist James Pellerite, that combines Native American flute, chamber orchestra and electronic media.

The violin concerto, “Lines in Motion,” that headlines his “Venice of the North Concerti” disc for Naxos was a nominee for both the Pulitzer Prize in Music and the Grawemeyer Prize. Vladimir Lande, the conductor who leads the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra on the CD—in the violin concerto (with Charles Wetherbee as the excellent soloist), “Ania’s Song,” and a saxophone concerto with soloist Taimur Sullivan—is already proposing an Aikman double concerto for a prestigious team, violinist Sarah Chang and pianist Xiayin Wang.

 

To read the complete review, please visit http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/aikman-feature

 

Laurence Vittes

Gramophone, December 2011

“The soloists…are spectacular…Ania’s Song…makes an ideal interlude between two wonderful concertos.”

To read the complete review, please visit Gramophone Sounds of America online:   http://www.exacteditions.com/exact/browse/345/365/29940/3/11

 

Infodad.com, November 2011

The three Aikman works here draw on multiple stylistic influences, with distinct jazz and pop-music elements and very different levels of expressiveness. The Violin Concerto is the most intricate of the pieces, retaining a strong flavor of improvisation even when thoroughly written-out…At the other emotional and structural end of things is the dissonant and rather harsh Saxophone Concerto, whose clarity of orchestration strongly contrasts with its generally acerbic tone and a sound recalling that of Alban Berg. …Ania’s Song…functions…as a respite for the ear…the orchestra here is Russian and the recording was made in St. Petersburg, yet nothing sounds exotic or as if it is played by musicians uncomfortable with Aikman’s American style. Read complete review

 

Jay Harvey

The Indianapolis Star, October 2011

“Quasi una Fantasia,” is a brilliant piece of work—quite discursive but somehow coherent and a virtuoso exercise in orchestration. As for the finale, it has aspects of the gratuitous display of churning energy often found in the music of one of Aikman’s teachers, Donald Erb.  I enjoyed the occasional abrupt pauses, as if Aikman was conscious of needing to check the perpetual-motion tendency of this movement.

The Saxophone Concerto seems to be written to integrate the solo voice more with the orchestra, but perhaps a  judicious recording balance was achieved here and that may deserve the credit.  Taimur Sullivan’s unruffled agility and pristine tone on the alto saxophone are admirable throughout. Read complete review

 

David Denton

David's Review Corner, September 2011

‘I’ve written this music as a contribution to the musical repertoire’, comments James Aikman in the disc’s programme notes. Born in the States in 1959, and with Donald Erb, William Bolcom and Louis Andriessen featuring among his mentors, his subsequent career has been divided between composition and teaching on the faculty of the University of Michigan. On first acquaintance he has developed a highly personal style, the Baroque era forming the underlying influence to which he has added a new harmonic language taking us where we least expect to travel. Dating from 2009, the Violin Concerto’s opening statement possesses the transparency we find in the music of Alban Berg, before moving to a luxuriant quality in the central Quasi una Fantasia that could well have come from Samuel Barber. The finale is a modern slant on a Toccata with a very proactive role for the soloist. Though the Alto Saxophone Concerto, completed the following year, has that freedom of expression of the great jazz saxophonists, it is expressed in atonal influences of the Second Viennese School, two fast outer movements surrounding a mood of contemplation where the soloist is found doodling around an orchestral accompaniment often erupting in angry outbursts. The disc is completed with an arrangement for string orchestra of a score originally for string quartet, Ania’s Song, a piece that could well have formed the beautiful backdrop for a Hollywood film romance scene. Two outstanding North America’s musicians, Charles Wetherbee and Taimur Sullivan, are the dedicated soloists in their respective concertos, and share the stage with one of St. Petersburg’s more recently created orchestras directed by their American principal guest conductor, Vladimir Lande.

 

2011 Interviews

 

 

Tobias Fischer

Tokafi.com

http://www.tokafi.com/15questions/interview-james-aikman/

 

Interview with James Aikman

   November 8th 2011, by Tobias Fischer  | 

Tradition hasn't just had a bad run - most of the 20th century was spent trying to mock it, crush it and break with it. The past hundred years of musical history are a battle field strewn with the corpses of those who were deemed too weak, undetermined and lacking in vision to stand up to that challenge: When, in 1972 prominent serialist George Rochberg wrote a 'classical retro' movement into his third string quartet, his colleagues were appalled, ousting Rochberg from their ranks. And yet, audiences, in a way, have proved smarter than composers, separating the „valuable“ from the purely „progressive“ and insisting that the bond between the past and the present not be artificially severed. To James Aikman, too, tradition – as an intergenerational telegraph line – has constituted an integral part of his creative philosophy. After all, without lineages, there'd be no continuity and without continuity, there'd be no community, no communality, no sharing and no spiritual growth. And so, in 1994, as an aspiring composer with a burning passion for Stravinsky, Aikman left his hometown of Indianapolis - where his work had already met with appreciation, success and the admiration of leading instrumentalists like Joshua Bell - to study with Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam. It would turn out to be a pivotal moment for him, as his courses with Andriessen extended far beyond conventional borders of curriculum and genre. Through his short, but intense stay in the Dutch capital, Aikman discovered a lifeline running from the 17th century to the present, a jugular pumping creative blood into a body far greater than that of a single person. When he returned to the States two years later, he hadn't just discovered his own voice and confirmed his calling as a composer - he knew where he belonged. This realisation would prove to be an essential support over the decade to follow, as Aikman developed a style confidently and seemingly effortlessly making use of the full ressources at his disposal. In his work, elements from the Viennese School mingle with jazzy pulses. Cinematic string fields clash with rock-infused chord blocks. Classical formats are taking turns with new structural concepts. And in a typical 21st century paradox, Aikman's command of 'acoustic' orchestration and timbre has been shaped by his profound knowledge of electronics. To him, these two latter realms are natural companions and complementary rather than competitive forms of musical expression – as demonstrated on his album Tremors from a far Shore, on which he explores the combinatorial potential of piano, violin and electronic sound synthesis. His latest album, Venice of the North Concerti, meanwhile, outwardly appears to be more traditional. And yet, to the careful observer, there are plenty of convention-defying juxtapositions at work here as well, moments that sound perfectly familiar at first, but reveal confounding contrasts upon closer inspection. It is only Aikman's deep belief in the importance of lineage that makes the fantastical seem perfectly natural. This, after all, is what traditions do, when applied carefully: Putting an artist in touch with the past to allow him to reach out into the future.

 

Stravinsky and Andriessen, with whom you later studied, were part of a long lineage of inspirations and teachers. Why is this lineage so important to you?
The question of why I respect compositional lineage is a philosophical inquiry, and deals with the concept of ideas. Ideas transcend time. Music is an idea. Therefore, music has the ability to transcend time. Its effect does as well … Since music also takes place in time, it has its own special problems to solve. Though the individual language may have changed, these compositional matters have not changed throughout history. Working with those whose musical results you respect puts you in touch with these same interests. This, also, has the ability to transcend space and time, in my opinion. 


You don't use the term composer light-heartedly.
I believe a composer needs to have something musically meaningful to say! Having meticulous craft, though it is very important, isn’t quite enough. It is one’s duty, as a musician, to genuinely project meaning in the music. Whether composer, instrumentalist, conductor, journalist, critic or audience member, the main duty that should never be lost is being true to the ideal of the music being conveyed. For true composers, this is very serious business, yet, a steady slew of dilettantes seem to jump into the arena since subjective evaluation is ultimately the criteria. But to be a composer means to live, fully in one’s own time, and to be interested in many musics of the present and of the past. Not only interested, but dedicated and knowledgeable enough to learn, and to have studied a bit, what it is about various musics that excites and brings emotions, and musical meaning. Furthermore, it takes tremendous selfdiscipline to carry out ones own ideas in relative isolation. The fruits of dedicated labor do arise upon successfully completing a work and sharing it with others. We live in an exciting time, where all music that has ever been composed, performed, and/or improvised and recorded, is available to hear. We take this for granted. Composers’ individual aesthetic filters have just begun to express the possibilities this expanded palette is beginning to provide. Nothing is anachronistic. All is vocabulary.


Stravinsky's death was an epiphany for you. Was that because it proved that the time of great composers wasn't over?
Absolutely! Stravinsky was my favorite composer from my elementary school music history classes. Those early ballets are so extraordinary. I must have missed the class where my teacher Mrs. Fidler told us he was still alive! So when, as a twelve year-old, I heard Walter Cronkite, on CBS News, announce that the great composer, Igor Stravinsky, had died in New York, it really struck me that great classical music was still being composed. Shortly afterwards, my grandfather, with whom I was very close, died. We were next door neighbors and the best of pals. I will never forget being in awe of his extraordinary mind and his inspiring, indominatable spirit. After his death when I was thirteen, I stopped piano lessons. Everything stopped for a while, except my volatility, which increased. But music was always an outlet, a place to pour my energies, and a vehicle for communication and social interaction as well. 


Elliott Carter had to fight considerable resistance in order to be able to pursue his dream of life as a composer. How did the situation present itself to you?
I am aware that the American composer, Charles Ives, who sold insurance to the well-to-do businessman Elliot Carter, Sr.’s family, gave the young Carter encouragement. As in most families with a business background, I rather suppose a few conversations centered on how the young Carter would survive selling his wares to such a small slice of the market. It is a hard case to make for anyone trying to survive on art music, for that market is even smaller now. The universities are current patrons. I have had immense life struggles, but from the start, my family has always been supportive, in ways too numerous to mention. There is not room for me to express the depth of my gratitude. 
That does not mean we have not had conversations which point out such things as I mention above. Further, I have been subjected to goodnatured jousting in more direct terms, “Why don’t you just write something I can sing in the shower?“


At home, there was always a lot of classical music around. Whenever you'd leave the house, though, you'd be exposed to rock, pop and jazz. How did these different worlds coexist in your mind? 
My childhood was one in which all types of music existed. My earliest recollections are those of my sister and I asking Mom to play just one more Chopin Prelude before bed time. Our favorite, the C Minor, we called ‘the banging song.’ That short piece contained such mystery, depth and power. So music began as an illuminating, magical and important part of my life. I tinkered around and began trying to emulate what I heard. These improvisations led to piano lessons, and to elementary music theory. My first piano teacher was my cousin, Kathy Murphy. I then took lessons with Marie Moore, a Japanese WWII bride who was studying with Menahem Pressler, the great pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, at the time. She took me to his recitals, though was very strict, and I received a thorough introductory grounding in music theory, as well as pianistic technique. 

We also had this self-contained record player and a bunch of albums from various countries of the world. In addition to some great American folk music, there were Italian songs, Irish music, songs from Spain and Mexico, French chansons, etcetera. I used to love playing those records as a child. 


You also mentioned your elementary school music teacher, Mrs. Clara Fidler as an important early influence ...
I owe much to her for teaching me how to listen to music. She would 'drop the needle' in her grade school music classes. Imagine, we were taught to differentiate Bach from Handel, Mozart from Haydn, Schubert from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and so forth - all before we were allowed to cross the street by ourselves. Fantastic! She had us singing, playing recorders, playing drums, and as a whole, we would present four or five school holiday concerts during the year. She also encouraged my band, which gave me early experience in creating music, and working with musicians in elementary school. 

I have thought of another early influence which is in a way unique. My family, on both sides through my grandparents, enjoy saddlebred horses. I remember as a child being astonished how the horses kept time with the music during shows. In fact, of course, it was the organist or big band who kept time with the 5 different gaits of the horse. The magic of music, and the fact that it actually emphasized particular motion and contrasting emotions, became visually apparent to me. 


When did jazz enter the picture?
During high school. I then learned a great deal from lessons with Steve Allee, an amazing pianist from Indianapolis who has played with many jazz greats, and who has his own trio and big band. In Indy, a wonderful stride piano player, James “Step” Wharton, taught me to solo over his chord changes, how to harmonize and think about chord structure. I was in a jazz fusion band with bassist Gary Montgomery, nephew of Wes Montgomery, the legendary guitarist. During high school, I also had a trio with vibraharpist Paul Ray, and saxophonist, Tom Mitchell, who has recently been featured in Jimmy Buffet’s band for over a decade. I played in a pop band too. We stayed together for seven years, playing on college campuses, Midwest nightclubs, the US National Figure Skating Championships in 1982, a Coca-Cola sponsored album project and an MTV commercial video. But alongside this, I had two years of college level music theory in high school, with a dedicated composer named Doug Wagner, and a terrific music history class. I listened to the music of Charles Ives. His 4th Symphony especially struck me then. So did the music of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Oscar Peterson, Yes, and Frank Zappa, from whom I learned about Edgard VarŹse, whose music is quite unlike anything of its time.

So to answer your question about diverse influences, to be honest to myself and my tastes, in my compositional world, all musical influences are welcomed.


I'm sure this diverse education is at least partially responsible for the eclecticism in your work ...
I find myself influenced by the muse of whatever I am interested in at the moment, so to speak. By the time my piece is complete, I am interested in, or inspired by, something new. Originality is never the issue, it is always simply work to be done, and dedication to that work. Regarding aesthetics, I have usually found that quality trumps all. Creative expression is innate, and manifests in each work of someone who cares about quality, and who is dedicated to achieving it. One’s voice comes through writing music, after the music has been written, and is not for the composer to decipher or manipulate during its construction. It is something that evolves after years of hard work. It is not a consciously controlled, or projected, manifestation. It is the result of one’s lifetime in music made manifest.


Your biography mentions that, early on, you drew from „experience in electronic music for helping you develop a strong sense for instrumental color“. What kind of experience was this?
I learned firsthand, fundamental orchestrational concepts. Basically, recording electronic music in the studio - now on our computers, with the immediate playback capabilities - teaches anyone with ears that certain qualities of sounds consume others. Pure tones are eaten by those rich in harmonics. The concept of combining instruments, whether registrally layering them, or having them play in unison, becomes a bit like painting. Too much color can muddy the whole thing up. Clear out spatial room for prominent lines that are more devoid of overtones. Take advantage of the overtone series, its spacing and sonic potential. Most importantly, the fact that instruments can play for long periods of time, does not mean that the ears do not like variety.

Being in an electronic music ensemble at Indiana University also opened my ears. While there, we provided electronic music for John Eaton’s opera, The Tempest, and I was a consultant to his development of an idea, involving an X/Y axis, for live, keyboard control. Various parameters could be programmed, such as vibrato, dynamics and pitch shifting, into either the X or Y axis pick-up strips, built into the keys, thus making live performance in electronic music far more musical. This was for Robert Moog who was then working at Kurzweil Instruments. (Ray Kurzweil is amazing!) I am not sure if the idea was ever implemented. I haven’t thought about that in years. I got to meet Robert Moog at one of John Eaton’s gatherings after a production. 


You started studying music in the 70s. The academic system in the States has often been described as a hermetically sealed off world, disconnected from the daily lives of most other people.
I would not agree that the university is hermitically sealed off and disconnected. It may seem that it is, but it allows creative people a place to prosper and flourish. Extraordinary advances come from the research being done in universities. Scientific discoveries, medical breakthroughs, etcetera, and I think even the corporate brainstorming models came straight out of academe. I enjoyed the fact that professors in various subjects were notable. In fact, after taking philosophy and logic courses, I nearly switched majors. But the philosophy chair knew I was a composer and told me, with a smile, “the only thing less practical in this world than a degree in music composition is a degree in philosophy.” 


As you once put it, „ironically, your first significant success was found in purely acoustic music“. 
A transforming event in my life took place in 1982. The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis was created by legendary violinist, Josef Gingold and by Thomas J. Beczkiewizc, a cultural leader in the State of Indiana. This competition was an immediate, extraordinary success, due to its co-founders and the immensity of talent which they brought to the city. My mother volunteered our family to host a competitor, and our violinist guest was Mihaela Martin, then of Rumania. There was some question, even up to a week beforehand, if the Rumanian government would allow her to compete for fear of her possible defection. But since her family was in Rumania, they eventually gave approval and Mihaela arrived days before the first round. It was such an exciting time. She was just fantastic, knew a good bit of English, and would watch music videos inbetween practicing in our family room. For a budding composer, it was a Godsend. Her talent and virtuosity shined from her violin in tones, and scalar flourishes I had not heard before. Her dedicated practicing gave me a new impression of what it takes to be a world class artist. In any event, as each round of the month-long competition ensued, Mihaela’s playing was astounding. However, before her final concerto performance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under John Nelson, she had a crisis of confidence. The pressure, travel, new circumstances, and rushed routine had gotten to her. My mother, who is remarkably sensitive and intuitive, consoled her, built her up, reinforced all the positive traits Mihaela brought to the music, and basically lifted her spirits which truly soared during the concerto. She brought the house down and John Nelson said she was an artist already with whom he could make significant music. Mihaela won the competition, and it was a triumphant, exciting time for all of us. I was able to meet and get to know Josef Gingold, Tom and Ania Beczkiewicz, Henryk  Szeryng, and many exceptional artists. I promised to write a piece for Ms. Martin upon her return to judge the next quadrennial competition in 1986. I delivered on that promise, composing most of the fast second movement of my first sonata for violin and piano in nightclub dressing rooms during my band’s set breaks in the spring/summer of 1985. 


It sounds like a life-changing experience ...
During this time, I would wake up with a daunting nudge to quit pop music altogether and devote myself fully to the serious study of music, which I did in autumn of 1985. I wrote the lyric first movement of my sonata during the  spring of 1986, then copied it in time to proudly present my sonata to Mihaela! And imagine this, even during her full-time duties as a juror, Mihaela made the time to learn my sonata during the month of September, and gave its world premiere that very month in Indiana University’s Recital Hall with pianist, Deanna Aikman. They also recorded the work. Joshua Bell heard a recording while judging the Carmicheal Competition, and he chose to play the piece with pianist Charles Webb, then Dean of the Indiana University Jacob’s School of Music. Their performance was recorded and broadcast live from the television studios of WFIU/WTIU. Thereafter, Josh Bell and I became friends, and many other fine violinists began to play my music. 


In the 90s, you then moved to the Netherlands. What was Amsterdam like at the time? 
I had been to Amsterdam in 1988 for the Gaudeamus Musicweek, as a guest, being a laureate of the Bourges competition. I love the country, the rich cultural history, the wonderful and intelligent people, and first discovered the music of Louis Andriessen. Upon returning to the US and completing my graduate studies, I took up contact with him, via letter. I asked to study with him and he said, “I suppose it should not be a problem.” I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in Music Composition, to study with him. Amsterdam was then, and is now, a vibrant center for contemporary music. They have coffee shops/bars which also contain theaters in which new music is actively performed for the public, at a cost that is reasonable. This type of environment has recently begun sprouting in New York and around the States. 


What were these courses with Andriessen like? 
I was a private student of Louis Andriessen. I wrote music, brought it to the lessons, we talked about it, and about many things: Mozart’s letters to his father, the importance of metronomic exactitude when composing, centrality of idea and process in a piece of music, painting and Dutch artists and much more. Louis is incredibly knowledgeable of many things, but especially of music throughout history, and would point out, in musical scores of say, Bach, or Chopin, ideas which paralleled, architecturally speaking, sections of music I had brought in. This was inspiring, as well as daunting. We met every two weeks, on Mondays, his teaching day, in his apartment on the Emperor's Canal, Keizersgracht. I can not possibly begin to tell you how much it meant to me to be a composer, composing music in Amsterdam, a city which names streets after composers. I was treated remarkably well by the Dutch, who highly respect composers. Louis invited me to all concerts of note, and included me in his circle of friends. At one point, I remember telling Louis that I woke up one morning absolutely knowing that I am a composer. He replied, “then you don’t need me anymore. We will see each other at concerts.” This was a pivotal moment in my life, sitting at my keyboard in my apartment in Amsterdam, writing music all day, and going to concerts at night, knowing that all my hard work had put me on the right track. Upon returning to Indiana, I brought with me the firm knowledge that music is a continuum, and that I was part of it. 


When you returned to the States in the mid-90s, the situation seemed to be confusing to a lot of composers. Could you sympathise with someone like George Rochberg, who had already in the 1960s left the maximalist race and returned to the safety offered by traditions? 
I knew George Rochberg and admire his honesty and his music. He has a book with a foreword by William Bolcom, called, The Aesthetics of Survival, which addresses these concerns very well. William Bolcom’s musical vocabulary allows him to shift between between various musics on a dime, effortlessly, and uncontrived. In my case, I was freed by a confidence in my own work, and from the challenge of reconciling the many musics of my experience. Also, from a comment by William Bolcom coincidentally, who said I would always be fine if I just write what I hear. Music is an aural art, after all is said and done, and after years of studying techniques, forms, methods, it all boils down to what the composer actually hears. In that, I was, and remain, confident. 


In which way have your compositional challenges changed over the past decades?
It is a gift to write music. At first, most young composers write to impress.  Impress their teachers, their colleagues, their girlfriends, their boyfriends, etcetera. But life happens and we realize that composing is more than an elevated form of showing off. Once the weight of writing something meaningful, music that strikes the mind and the heart, has been achieved, the challenge intensifies to do that with each piece. But we gladly accept that challenge because we confidently believe we have something to share. And the more we mature, the more firmly it is felt as a duty. 


How do you personally define success?
As genuinely conveying distinct musical thoughts, emotions, and meaning to others, through the inspired interpretation of performers. Connecting, in other words, in a shared  experience of what I hear with others, including those who might be living in the future.

By Tobias Fischer

James Aikman Discography:
White Sunday Light (Non Sequitur) 1999
Tremors From A Far Shore (Centaur) 2005
Venice of the North Concerti (Naxos) 2011

Recommended James Aikman Interviews & Articles on the Web:Leslie Bassett interviewed in-depth about orchestration by James Aikman. James Aikman's page at Non Sequitur publishing.Homepage:James Aikman

Tags: interviews, classical, contemporary composition, composer, james aikman, usa

 

 

Fanfare Magazine  http://www.fanfarearchive.com/articles/atop/35_3/3530220.aa_Tremors_Far_Shore_Music.html

Interview by David DeBoor Canfield

 

Feature Article by David DeBoor Canfield

Tremors from a Far Shore: The Music of James Aikman

Venice of the North Concerti

Audio CD

Naxos American

Aikman: Venice of the North Concerti

MP3 Download

Naxos

Tremors From a Far Shore: James Aikman Sonatas for Violin

Audio CD; Import

Centaur

 

It has been a particular pleasure to interview James Aikman for reasons that will become obvious during the course of this dialogue. Aikman’s music has been heard around the world in such prestigious venues as the Gaudeamus International Festival in Amsterdam, the Festival of Experimental Music de Bourges, Wigmore Hall in London, Tanglewood, and many others. He wrote the music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the U.S. National Sports Festival and the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship. Well-known performers such as Dawn Upshaw, Gilbert Kalish, and Joshua Bell have taken up his music, and he has received many awards and commissions. His music is published by Non Sequitur Music, Inc. and G. Schirmer.

Q: How old were you when you realized that you just had to be a composer?

A: It’s difficult to recall, but I’m certain I knew it while studying with Michael Schelle at Butler University. He made the art of composition a reality during lessons. He brought Stravinsky to life during classes, and even brought one of his teachers, Aaron Copland, to campus to meet his students.

Q: James, even though you were at Indiana University shortly after I completed my degrees there and still lived in Bloomington, I never really got to know you at that time. Since we both worked with Fred Fox and John Eaton (even though you may not have actually studied with him), I would love to know your recollections of them, as well as of your other teacher at IU, Don Erb.

A: Dr. Fox was very instrumental at that point in my life. During lessons, and after perusing students’ music in silence for a few minutes, his astute, wise comments, I began to realize, would focus on what he considered the most striking of the materials brought in weekly. He highly valued craft, and would point out what he considered the most significant elements in sketches, and challenge students to build works entirely out of these. This developed style and craft. He also taught students in pairs, at the beginning of their work with him, and this was also a lesson, for one often learns far more from comments made to another, since the ego doesn’t get in the way! Fred was famous for his sharp wit, his good-humored, sudden outbursts of laughter, burning student’s music (literally), and the fact that he was a composer who also taught, rather than the other way around. He was a master of color and craft. I hear his voice often when I compose, and when I teach.

John Eaton asked me to assist with the production of electronic music for his opera The Tempest. Subsequently, I was a consultant to Eaton’s idea of a programmable, x/y axis piano keyboard for Robert Moog at Ray Kurzweil Systems. I was honored, as Eaton was the first person in history to give live performances of electronic music. I learned much from the vast imagination of this man of music. My Fantasy for Violin incorporates microtonal inflections as a tribute to John Eaton, as well a row here and there as a bow to Harvey Sollberger, with whom I was studying while Fox was on sabbatical. What a meeting of minds that was: Claude Baker, John Eaton, Donald Erb, Frederick Fox, Eugene O’Brien, Harvey Sollberger! Can you imagine composition departmental meetings!

Donald Erb was instrumental in my life during and beyond my student years. I wrote my first orchestra piece, A Bottle of Notes and Some Voyages, during his advanced orchestration course at IU. Another inspired mentor with an international, real-life career in composition, Dr. Erb was composer-in-residence with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and had just written the article for the Encyclopedia Britannica on orchestration. He kept my music in mind, and generated many professional orchestral readings and performances of my music in cities around this country. Don also stayed in touch throughout his life, calling me frequently, always asking, “You composing every day, Aikman?” It wasn’t really a question, but rather a command. Currently, I am editing an interview of Dr. Erb on orchestration that I will soon make available. I miss him dearly.

Q: Another connection that we have that I imagine that you have been unaware of until now is that your Violin Sonata No. 1 beat out my Violin Sonata No. 2 at a contest sponsored by WTIU, the TV station of Indiana University. This may be the first time in the history of music criticism that a loser of such a competition not only reviewed the winning composition, but even gave it a rave! I should add that your piece did deserve to win, and served to show me the deficiencies in my own work, impelling me to extensively rewrite it years later. So, I have to ask: How does this relatively early work fit into your compositional oeuvre?

A: Thank you, and you are right, I had no idea! My first sonata for violin and piano was pivotal in my compositional life, for its first movement was written during a brief hiatus from academia. In 1982, the young Romanian violinist Mihaela Martin was the guest of our family during the first International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. I listened to her practice in our living room during September. This diligence, and the artistry of passagework that I witnessed, taught me so very much about the instrument. Further, I was able to meet Josef Gingold, Thomas Beczkiewicz (the founders of the competition), Henryk Szeryng, and Joshua Bell, among others, due to this piece. After Mihaela won the 1982 competition, an exciting time for all, I promised her a sonata upon her return in 1986 as a judge in the next competition. I delivered on my promise, writing the second movement during intermissions at rock band shows. Then, the lyrical first movement was written in the spring of 1986, when I returned to graduate study with Prof. Fox. Mihaela learned and premiered the piece with Deanna Aikman in September of 1986.

Q: Whence does this live performance (apparently the only one on the CD) derive?

A: The performance comes from a student composition recital at IU’s Recital Hall in 1989. Josh had agreed to perform the piece months before, yet Johnny Carson called him the week of the event, and asked if Josh could fill in for a cancelation on The Tonight Show, the night before our recital! Rather than cancel our recital, like most anyone else would have done, Josh taped the Tonight Show, took the redeye flight overnight back from L.A:, played a round of golf, briefly rehearsed the piece with Deanna, then gave the stunning performance. This shows the immense character of Joshua Bell.

Q: All of the violinists on the CD of your violin music have Indiana connections. As you’re a native of Indianapolis, I suspect this is no coincidence. How did you happen to meet Alex Kerr, given that he came to IU years after you had left?

A: I met Alex through his father-in-law, Tom Beczkiewicz. Alex married Tom and Ania’s daughter, Jona. After hearing my setting of Tom’s Wedding Poems, Alex suggested my third sonata and gave its premiere with Lisa Leonard, at the Linton Chamber Music Series, at Indiana University, and in the Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor. He is a great musician, colleague, and friend, as are Taro and Zeyda Suzuki, Davis Brooks, and Joshua Bell.

Q: How much of your music uses electronics? I note that this work on the Centaur CD is quite different in some ways from the other works on the CD. Is this because of the medium itself?

A: My Fantasy for Violin and Electronics has been played in many varied spaces including a computer-executives gathering in Palo Alto. It is a piece one player can perform with the accompanying prerecorded media and sound refreshingly different from the piano we know and love. Dr. Brooks plays it superbly! Electronic music is simply a new genre we have in our palette as composers in this day and age. No matter the forces, I believe a composer needs to have something musically meaningful to say. Having meticulous craft, though it is very important, isn’t quite enough. It is one’s duty as a musician to genuinely project meaning in the music. Whether composer, instrumentalist, conductor, journalist, critic, audience member, etc., the main duty that should never be lost is being true to the ideal of the music being conveyed. For true composers, this is very serious business.

Q: The form of your Third Sonata intrigues me: Its first movement is barely more than a minute in length, while the second weighs in at more than 13, and is clearly the focal point of the entire work. Is there significance in your mind in this weighting?

A: The second movement is an extended, lyrical journey. The songlike nature of this is enhanced by the bold energy and contrasting character of the lively movements which surround it.

Q: I perceive just a hint of influence of Louis Andriessen in this sonata. Am I right?

A: Yes, though looking back, I perceive his influence in the strength and character of a logical, determined effort, not so much in the arena of style. If I were going to replicate the music of Louis Andriessen, I would do it wholeheartedly. After working with a master such as Louis, the extraordinary wisdom, wit, and warmth of the teaching does influence. His uncompromising pursuit of excellence is contagious. I could replicate his music in my music, but then that would go away from the very aesthetic of his teaching, which is to be true to your own musical ideas, not your teacher’s or anyone else’s. Your own ideas! He could have become a little Berio, just as I could have become a little Andriessen, but where does that leave an individual creative contribution? I remember Louis mentioning that many of Berio’s students became little Berios, dressing like him, talking like him, writing music like him, with Italian titles and everything! He strongly advised against this, and taught from the perspective of ideas, not style, as paramount in learning the art of composition.

Q: You write so idiomatically for the violin in both the sonatas and concerto that I wonder if you play the instrument yourself?

A: I have never played the instrument. The closest I came to it was playing the viola during string class at Butler University, and the cello, which I checked out for a semester from the IU instrumental library.

Q: You state in the notes to your Saxophone Concerto that you love hearing the sound of that instrument with orchestra (as do I). Is this because it is a color not often found in the symphony orchestra?

A: I include the saxophone in quite a few of my pieces. I have had the pleasure of knowing Eugene Rousseau and Donald Sinta, who have been champions of the instrument, fostering generations of superb saxophonists. And for heaven’s sake, Taimur Sullivan is an amazing soloist! His dedication and spirited playing astounded the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra’s musicians, lifting everyone to a higher level of playing. Taimur is so great to work with. So, my writing a saxophone concerto is also due to the fact that saxophonists are some of today’s finest musicians, who actively seek new repertoire, as the finest musicians always have throughout musical history.

Q: What was it like to work with Vladimir Lande and the St. Petersbutrg State Symphony Orchestra? Were there any language problems? Did the Russians have a good feel for your music from the outset?

A: I have the highest respect for Maestro Lande. He is a consummate musician. Working with him is absolutely terrific, as he puts the music first. We have been friends since he first heard my music in New York. The two concerti on the Naxos CD were composed and given life because of his belief in my music. He is leading the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra on a U.S. tour, and is including Ania’s Song in the repertory. Vladimir speaks fluent English, and Russian. He is an American citizen, born in St. Petersburg, so his exact translation of my suggestions was evident in the warm, respectful interaction with the orchestra. But as great conductors do, Vladimir speaks powerfully through his extraordinary commitment to the music, and through his disciplined baton and rehearsal technique. The orchestra was so well prepared that Ania’s Song, at the first rehearsal, sounded as if they had played it their entire lives. It was a remarkable moment in my life. Further, Vladimir’s, Taimur’s, and Charles’s musicianship each inspired the orchestra to achieve its utmost during rehearsals, performances, and the recordings. Dedicated musicians prove that music is the universal language.

Q: How did you happen to get to know violinist Charles Wetherbee?

A: Vladimir introduced us. Working with Charles “Chas” Wetherbee on the violin concerto was one of the least stressful and most successful experiences in my professional life. He truly wanted to know exactly my intentions for the entire piece, and especially a few passages that suggested various interpretations. He invited me to his studio, where he had prepared several of these possible interpretations. He played each of them for me to see which was my intent, and we decided on the chosen ones. He also gave the U.S. premiere, with Maestro Lande leading the National Gallery Orchestra, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., during the 64th American Music Festival. This was one three orchestral pieces selected for the festival and included music by Fred Lerdahl and John Corigliano. The National Gallery of Art then nominated the violin concerto for the Pulitzer Prize in music and for the Grawemeyer Award in music composition. This was in part due to the stunning performance by Mr. Wetherbee, Mr. Lande, and the National Gallery Orchestra.

Q: Tell us how the commission for Ania’s Song came about. Have you had any other connections to the Indianapolis Violin Competition?

A: Ania’s Song: A Pavane for Strings was commissioned by Thomas J. Beczkiewicz for the birthday of his dear wife, Ania. It truly was a surprise for her, on a concert of returning laureates of the International Violin Competition at the Indiana Historical Society. The birthday version was for a string quartet and was composed initially upon awakening from a dream in the middle of the night (as opposed to from a nap). The initials of her name (Ania Dowgiallo Beczkiewicz: A, D, B) suggested the piece as it evolved as surely as if it had always existed. Kenneth Kiesler and the Michigan Chamber Orchestra gave the first performance of the string-orchestra version. This was heard by the conductor Nan Washburn, who gave the U.S. professional premiere with the Michigan Philharmonic earlier this year.

Q: What haven’t you written yet that you hope to someday?

A: More orchestral music, more solo pieces with electronics, string quartets, a piano concerto, an opera.

Q: James, what are you working on now?

A: I am just finishing a piece for native flute, electronic media (music/video), and narrator for the distinguished flute player and professor James Pellerite. The incredible and wonderful George Shirley has agreed to narrate. Prof. Pellerite’s groundbreaking work on the instrument, discovering fingerings for the total chromatic on a pentatonic instrument, is significant, and this work is like nothing else I have written. I mean, this guy played under Stravinksy’s baton! Anyone who could do that has to be good. Have you seen Stravinsky conduct?