Exclusive Interview Transcript with composer Jeremy Gill

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Read an exclusive interview with composer Jeremy Gill! The Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet will be performing Gill’s “Capriccio” on August 14 at Field Concert Hall. Buy tickets in advance: https://pypa.info/?page_id=206 or with cash/check at the door.


1. Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you started your music journey.


I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. My mother was an amateur pianist but otherwise we were not a musical family. I remember falling in love with classical music through a handful of LPs we had in the house — Bernstein conducting Strauss, Sokolov playing Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, compilation albums that included Grieg (Peer Gynt) and, still one of my favorite “minor” composers, Borodin. I started collecting recordings, too, and got to know the repertoire through cheap reissues of wonderful performances. In the meantime, I was studying saxophone (an elementary school friend of mine talked me into it — I wanted to play the snare drum), and later studied oboe, and much later — when I was a mid-teenager — the piano. I wrote my first piece when I was 12 years old, which I scored for symphonic band (I played saxophone in one, and the director was so kind to show me how to make a score and then, even more, to perform it for an audience of about 1,000). Later I studied composition and theory with a wonderful man in Pennsylvania, Robert Lau, with whom I am still close — he prepared me for college, and I did my undergraduate at Eastman and then a PhD at Penn in Philadelphia. I was lucky to study with many of the most important composers of the time, ending up with George Rochberg and George Crumb.


2. I know that you are also a wonderful conductor and pianist, besides being a composer, can you tell us how you see yourself in these roles and how you balance your time in your creativity?


These three things are all so different! I love playing the piano, and particularly accompanying singers — an accompanist can influence a singer’s performance so much, and I love the feeling of helping singers through their long phrases, laying a foundation for their high notes, crafting each accompanimental figure to illustrate the words they are singing. I do get nervous when I perform on the piano — I started studying so late, and the world is full of wonderful pianists, much more facile than I — but performing is worth the stress! Conducting is wonderful in another way: as a conductor, you get to shape the music, and there is an enticing balance between extreme detail (how short are the short notes, which member of the chord needs to be stronger, which melody is the primary, which the secondary) and the big picture (where is the emotional climax in an hour-long Mahler symphony). But a conductor, like a vocal accompanist, also has the opportunity to create the best environment in which the orchestral performers can thrive and play their best — I love this role. Composing, for me, draws on my experiences performing, and I always study the instruments I write for — their histories and repertoires — so I can write something that fits within the context of the experiences of the performers of those instruments. Sometimes this takes a very clear form, as in Capriccio, which is all about string playing, both individually and in groups.

Balancing my time between these three things is sometimes tricky. I rarely have long stretches of time during which I am doing all three a little each day, though that is ideal. Right now, for instance, I am the composer in residence with Chautauqua Opera, but I am not doing any composing because I am also a vocal coach and cover conductor here! So I’ve been practicing lots, playing for singers, preparing recitals, and conducting lots of opera staging rehearsals. In April, though, when I was a resident at Copland House, I did nothing BUT compose and read all day! Not a bit of conducting, and only playing the piano while composing, or occasionally reading through music for fun. Composers are always thinking, though, imagining that next work, and I have several that are floating around in my imagination, waiting for an opportunity to be born.


3. Can you tell us about what inspired you to write “Capriccio”?


The primary inspiration for Capriccio was the Parker Quartet. I wrote for them first in 2005/6 and loved working with them. Over the years I followed their careers and heard them live whenever I could. They are wonderful players and wonderful people, and we’ve become good friends. I wanted to write a big, ambitious piece for them, and I knew that they were interested in educational activities, so we hatched this idea to create a piece that was made up of lots of parts that explicated the instruments and their techniques, and that deconstructed musical textures and types. The result is an hour-long work that is made up of 27 short movements ranging from about 30 seconds to over 6 minutes. Each movement focuses on a particular technique (how the bow is used, what the fingers of the left hand do, how the strings vibrate when open, stopped) or a musical texture (monophony, homophony, etc.), or an expressive “use” of music (love, community, etc.). We were fortunate to receive a commission for the piece from Chamber Music America’s Classical Commissioning Program, and then a grant from New Music USA to record Capriccio on innova Recordings (released in 2015).


4. What should the listeners be looking forward to during the performance of “Capriccio”?


Because Capriccio is largely focused on the technical aspects of the instruments themselves, the piece is best live — the audience can see what the players are doing, how they are making the sounds (some “normal,” some quite strange). So far, audiences have been very engaged and excited by this piece — the movements are so brief that one never loses interest, and I’ve tried to craft each movement such that each is interesting and engaging as “pure” music and as an example of the technique for which it is named (some titles of the movements: “Up, down” [referring to the bow], “Pluck, snap” [types of pizzicato], “Across the strings” [a bowing technique]). Throughout the piece there are sprinklings of solo and trio movements, too, giving the listener a chance to focus on smaller groups within the quartet. It’s really a fun piece to watch.


5. What is your compositional process?


It varies from piece to piece, but in general I do a lot of research before and while composing a piece. With Capriccio, this involved thinking about the stringed instruments and deconstructing the technique of playing each into its constituent parts. How does the bow work, for instance? Players vary the pressure of the bow, play at the frog (base) of the bow or tip, bounce the bow, drag the bow across the string, bound across several strings, turn the bow over and use the wood — rather than the hair – of the bow. Same with the fingers (of the left hand), and the string themselves (how do they vibrate under various pressures, excitations). I also researched music itself: in all of recorded history, how has music been used? In communal gatherings, to facilitate religious experiences, to woo, as an athletic pursuit (aulos playing was a “sport” in the Olympics of Ancient Greece!). When I decided that this piece was a “capriccio,” I then researched the history of the capriccio as a form, and wound up using several significant examples from the past in my own piece (by Farina, Bach, Jacquet de Berchem).


6. What do you look forward to during PYPA?


Primarily, to hearing great piano playing! I have attended many PYPA recitals, even after moving to Boston nearly 3 years ago. Ching-Yun is a marvelous pianist with whom I’ve had the honor to work as a composer and conductor: her performances are always electric, and she puts together a faculty of great pianists that are great teachers, as well. The students that she attracts are top-notch and extremely hard-working. This is a world-class operation that has literally dropped in Philadelphia’s lap — I hope the city recognizes what a gem it is!

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