'Slanting Time' with Brian Current
Just what is "slanted time?" Composer Brian Current explains it to conductor Michael Morgan, in advance of his May 3, 2006 premiere of his Symphonies in Slanted Time by ACO at Carnegie Hall.
Michael Morgan: What is your history of writing for orchestra?
Brian Current: Symphonies in Slanted Time (2005) is my fifth orchestra piece. It's really the culmination of several pieces about constantly changing tempos. Other orchestral works are This Isn't Silence (1998, rev. 2001), For the Time Being (2000), Kazabazua (2003) and The Star-Spangled Banner! (in Slanted Time) (2004). The last two are really just stepping-stones to this latest piece.
The Oakland East Bay Symphony was the first professional orchestra in the US to program my music, with was very helpful. Amongst others, Alex Pauk and the Esprit Orchestra in Toronto has also been particularly supportive as has the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which has performed two of the pieces.
MM: What do you remember about the first time you heard an orchestra read one of your pieces?
The first rehearsal can be quite difficult to listen to. Most composers I know feel this way. It's easy to hear only the things that aren't there yet and it's only experience that tells you that everything will be okay by the time of the concert. As a young composer, you don't know this, so your worry is that the music will simply stay like that! That was my experience the first time.
By the way, it's interesting that you say 'read' rather than rehearse! I know that composer reading sessions are often a fiscal reality, but I'm not a big fan of them as way of developing contemporary music. To make pieces that try new things - and I think this is a good way to write - we have to go temporarily (and responsibly) just a bit outside of everyone's comfort zone, and this is quite difficult to do in a straight reading session.
MM: What was the impact of that experience on the way you approach writing for orchestra?
By the time the piece made it from the first read-through the to concert, I was astounded at the ability of the players to adjust to the new material and make it sing. I can't tell you how inspiring it is to learn how good professional players truly are. It makes you want try out all kinds new things.
MM: Given the limited rehearsal time of any orchestra, have you changed any approaches to notation? Are there experiments you have decided to try, or not try, just on practical grounds?
I've found it important to make everything in the score and parts as crystal clear as I can. We hear this all the time, but it is easy to forget how important it is. I remember a reading session with the Ensemble Intercontemporain who visited UC Berkeley in 1998. Their conductor at the time handed me back the score after reading through only about a minute of music - of a fifteen-minute piece! The music was quite dense and the handwriting on the parts wasn't clear. They simply went on to the next composer. I had worked very hard on the project so the experience was quite difficult. However, it turned out to be a real learning opportunity: I reworked that piece from scratch for a different group who wanted something for the Adelaide Festival. It became For the Time Being, which I think of as one of my best works. While the conductor at the time -- it was David Robertson -- put me in a difficult spot, I think that he did the right thing.
Like many composers, I've also mostly stopped using complicated extended techniques that require lots of discussion during rehearsals: scraping, tapping, squeaking. These also sound quite dated to me, so it wasn't completely for practical reasons that I stopped using them.
MM: Some composers write quite differently for orchestra than for other media. Generally more conservatively. Do you find your orchestral music parallels the development of your music in other genres?
Yes. The chamber opera in particular. The goals of slanted time and the themes of Airline Icarus are closely linked. I think of each as having caused the other. The opera takes place aboard a commercial airplane and is about hubris mixed with technology, forced intimacy of strangers and flying too close to the sun. I was looking for music to match one of the main ideas of the piece, which that when things are speeding up and getting out of control, the passengers are oblivious to it. Acceleration is taken for granted, calming even. Symphonies in Slanted Time is not a calm piece by any means, but it has similar goals, and much like the opera's themes of technology revving up, gears upon gears, and speeding forward almost unnoticed by most of the characters, the goal of slanted time is to make the acceleration feel regular, natural, as if the speeding up were the normal state of the music.
MM: In Symphonies in Slanted Time are you taking off in new directions or do you consider this the logical outgrowth of what you have been doing?
I like to think that each piece is a stepping-stone to the next. Slanted time is a good example, as it developed through many works. I think culminates to some degree in "Symphonies."
Slanted time is how I describe my recent music that is always speeding up or always slowing down. Rather than write music for a steady metronome, I wondered if it were possible to make the change in tempo the normal state of the music. The indications accel (speed up!) and rall (slow down!) are therefore written over almost every line of the piece.
The other orchestra works play with tempo but in less rigid ways. This Isn't Silence (1998, rev. 2001) has enormous gestures rushing forward in a way that is mostly about rawness and power. For the Time Being (2000) features a passage that speeds up for an entire minute and a half around a gasping trombone solo. It was the way the material around the solo renewed itself that became the seed for future pieces. Kazabazua (2003) features a slanted time section in very simple rhythms that continuously speeds up for several minutes. (The odd thing was that this music belonged in the slow, rather than fast, movement. It turns out that the more continuously something speeds up, the more it "sits"). The orchestra did so well at this piece that I felt it was time to try to do an entire work in slanted time and write 'normally' or as if the tempos weren't constantly changing. Another test piece was The Star-Spangled Banner! (in slanted time) (2004), to see if I could write a familiar tune in tempos that are always speeding up and getting out of control.
- Michael Morgan is Music Director of Oakland East Bay Symphony. He was previously Assistant Conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony and the Chicago Symphony. A champion of contemporary music, Morgan was a 2005 ASCAP Concert Music Awardee. He has taught conducting at Tanglewood and at the San Francisco Conservatory.