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SOME OF OUR OWN: VOX 3 Members Discuss Their Compositional Process

October 24, 2011

Composers and VOX 3 Collective members Myron Silberstein and Elizabeth Rudolph took a few minutes during a recent rehearsal to discuss the compositional elements that went into their new pieces, which will be featured in VOX 3’s American Nouveau concert.


Elizabeth Rudolph, composer and soprano

MS: How did you start composing?

ER: I started high school at Lake Forest Academy. My mother had graduated from that school and it was a family tradition. I had been taking piano lessons since I was four.  The music teacher there listened to me play and said “I can’t really teach you anything more about piano, but have you ever thought about composing?” It wasn’t something I had ever thought about doing before then.

MS: What were those early writing experiments like?

ER: The first thing I wrote was a setting of a Quebec folk song for wind trio. When I had finished it, my teacher said, “Now you have to write a couple more movements for this.” That was my first experience trying to write original melodies. I wasn’t very good at it at first, but I was fourteen.

MS: What has helped you develop as a composer?

ER: Theory. The more I learn about theory the more I want to try all these tricks I find out about. I guess I feel more comfortable writing for the voice because I feel like I have a guideline. It boils down to the question “Where does it come from?” When I’m working with words I have a rhythmic pattern I can draw from; sometimes the melody is even defined by the words to a certain extent.

MS: What motivates you to write?

ER: Having a performer to write for. I don’t feel it’s music when it’s just on the page. The composer writes down this framework but then it’s up to the performers to give it life. Without the performers there is no music.

MS: Is your style consistent from piece to piece?

ER: I tend to be highly influenced by folk music and church music even though I’m an atheist. Especially early American church music is interesting, as it becomes almost a reflection of Renaissance music with its parallel fifths and octaves. That music also has a nostalgic feel for me, and I am very interested in nostalgia. Beyond that, when I’m not influenced by folk music, my work is very neo-Romantic. I’ve dabbled in Minimalism. I’m definitely not a serialist. But what about you?

MS: Well, other than some very fumbling attempts, I didn’t start composing until I was in my early twenties. I had been a solo pianist and always focusing on mid-twentieth century works. Ernest Bloch, Vincent Persichetti, Peter Mennin. I thought their pieces came about as close to saying what I wanted music to say as anything I had played. In the end, though, they did not actually say what I wanted to say; they just came close. So I got frustrated. It was never a matter of thinking, “Wow, Bloch did a great job, but measure 124, what a mess.” The pieces were perfect; they just weren’t what I would have written.

ER: Bloch wasn’t you.

MS: Right. Somewhere in there I put that equation together and decided it was time to start writing. I think exposure to those kinds of pieces got the harmonies in my ears. The first things I wrote were pretty tonal but with some bitonality and superimposed triads. Those are sounds I’m still pretty into. But I never studied composition other than that until I was in college. It was like a gravitational pull. I was looking through the course catalog and there was Composition I. I had never thought about finding a teacher before. I had just struggled to write. I’d practice the piano and sometimes I’d have a melodic idea of my own and take half an hour to try to make something of it. And when I’d hit a wall I’d say, “Stop wasting practice time! You’re a pianist, not a composer!” But when I saw that course listed, I had to go.

ER: I heard in your description of how you started composing that impulse, the drive to make it your own. I’m from a family of engineers. I like to think about how my spinning wheel was put together and how I could make one myself. I was hearing that echo.

MS: There is, and it’s a matter of inspiration. If I’m not inspired by something, I can let it be. The clock up on the wall here was my grandmother’s and it’s a nice clock, keeps great time …

ER: But you don’t feel the need to be a watchmaker?

MS: Exactly. But there’s a novelist I really like and I thought a lot of what he was trying to express felt familiar and exciting to me. So what is the missing link between having those feelings and getting them on paper? So I tracked down his email address and asked him that. And he said that there was no missing link. If you’re having story-thoughts, just write a story. And that was the day I became a writer.

ER: When you think about [Charles] Ives being an insurance salesman with almost no training and the pieces he wrote…well, there’s nothing stopping you if you want to write.


MS: Tell me about the pieces we’re performing.

ER: The name of the poem was “Orange Elevators” and I went with the color idea and decided to write a blues-inspired piece.

MS: Orange’s color-wheel enemy!

ER: Yeah, that. Also, it’s sad, static poem, and the blues are a sad, static form.

MS: You even have the 5-6-7-6-5 melody in the piano —though with the lowered sixth. But you’re in five-four time. And lots of music in five-four feels like it’s an intentional distortion — Chopin’s first piano sonata has a movement in five-four and it just screams that he was a kid trying to be adventurous. But what you do doesn’t sound contrived, and it doesn’t even sound lopsided. You don’t hear it as a compound meter.

ER: I didn’t want to use four-four or three-four because they feel much more square — or triangular! I wanted the piece to be static but I wanted to avoid the predictable quality of those meters. Of course after you’ve heard it three times it’s in your ear, but it’s not four-four.

MS: And in the melody you’ve gotten a lot of range and scope. You don’t have a typical blues melody so that’s not predictable.

ER: I was thinking of a wave kind of motion. I wasn’t thinking about its range explicitly. I wanted to give something to it that felt eternal.

MS: It undulates.

ER: These things that go into the compositional process!

Myron Silberstein, composer and pianist

MS: I know. “Love’s Philosophy” came about after I’d accompanied a few competitions where every other singer was doing Quilter’s setting of it. But I grew up watching Twin Peaks where that poem has a very menacing role and it didn’t feel inappropriate. Quilter has none of that darkness. He has all the exuberance of the poem, but you don’t get a sense of conflict. So clearly there are several ways of looking at the poem; maybe I had a way of my own.

Then I was on a train on vacation and a melody for “And the sunlight clasps the earth / And the moonbeams kiss the sea” came to me. The first line was clearly in E major but the second line was in F minor. But the melody as I was singing it felt tonal, even though it turned out to be a whole-tone scale. I had to get to the piano and see if my ears were fooling me. I wound up having to put the triads in inversion, but it worked. And then I had to make a piece of it, and the first four notes of that melody became the motif that tied everything together.

ER: When I write a vocal piece I start with the words and from there I get a sketch of a melody and form and then an accompaniment. It sounds like you work everything together?

MS: I think very vertically, but with anchor points. The melody has a direction it wants to go but I can’t start a melody without thinking of what’s underneath it. So I’ll think vertically for a couple of bars and then the melody will go on for a while, but I’ll have to fill in the harmony. Melody and harmony leave the start gate together and then the melody will jump two steps ahead of the harmony but it can’t go further ahead until the harmony catches up.

One Comment leave one →
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