Interview with William Susman, composer of Zydeco Madness

Posted: February 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

MSO’s Opus One will be performing William Susman’s Zydeco Madness in the upcoming performances with Marcela Pinilla on March 1 & 2 at the Rumba Room.  William Susman lives in the San Francisco area.  His composition, Zydeco Madness, was dedicated to “the forgotten of Hurricane Katrina” in Louisiana.  With the recent Mardi Gras celebration, and the fact that it’s awesome to be able to interview a living composer, I thought you would all enjoy hearing what William Susman has to say about being a composer and particularly about the piece the MSO musicians will be performing next week.

Interview with William Susman

Tell us about your background: where did you grow up, and where do you live now?  How did your musical career begin?
I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and now live near San Francisco. I did my undergrad work in music at the University of Illinois and went to grad school at Stanford in order to work at CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics). I’ve lived in the SF Bay area since then. As a teenager in the Chicago area, I studied with a variety of teachers in classical and jazz piano and, counterpoint. I also played in my high school big band and gigged with jazz combos. My influences back then were all the jazz greats such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Monk, Miles, and Coltrane.

My first big break was when I got a BMI award for a large divisi work for soprano, choir and orchestra which also happened to be my Stanford master’s thesis. At the BMI award ceremony in New York, I met one of the judges, the seminal American composer Earle Brown. At the ceremony, he said “I had to fight for your score. No one wanted to look at it because it was too big. I was the only one willing to spread it out on the floor!” (that was before you could reduce things cheaply at Kinko’s. I had made copies of the score at an architectural blueprint shop. Not long after BMI, I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel and met Virgil Thomson who lived there. He gave me the practical advice of, “The print is too small and the score is too big!”)

It was very exciting to have a composer of Earle’s stature champion me. He helped secure a Fromm Music Foundation commission. I wrote a chamber orchestra piece with that commission and it was premiered at the Aspen Music Festival. It was also selected for the Gaudeamus Festival in Holland and was performed by the VARA radio orchestra (now Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Ernest Bour. Bour was a legend with the European avant-garde having premiered many works by Berio and Ligeti among others. Needless to say, I was honored to work with these musicians while in my mid-20s.

You’ve written works for an assortment of instrumental combinations in varying genres!  How did your schooling and musical experiences contribute to your compositions?  How different is it to write seemingly unrelated genres, like film scores to piano concertos?

Before I arrived at University of Illinois I spent a year and half at Tulane. I had a wonderful piano teacher there named Robert Zemurray Hirsch who introduced me to all the great 20th century composers and I most connected with Webern and his Opus 27. It was truly an epiphany for me to study and play Webern’s music. Since that time, my process has always included ideas of structure, symmetry, cycle, isorhythm, hocket and the like. Today, though, my musical language could not be more different than Webern’s. It’s the sheer brilliance and beauty of his constructions, as if he created these immense crystals, that I so admire.

After Tulane, I transferred to Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to completely focus on music. I was 19 and majored in music composition and piano. I used to love to browse through the stacks of scores in the music library and happened across Pithoprakta by Xenakis (coincidentally, also a string orchestra work). I fell in love with his sound world and also that of Ligeti’s. I was deeply attracted to large divisi scores where each member of the orchestra played a different part. Ligeti called it micro-polyphony. I liked large-scale constructions and “clouds” of sound. A few years later at Stanford, I wrote a grand scale divisi orchestral work with almost a 100 solo parts in some sections. It was reminiscent of Ligeti and Xenakis. This was the piece that caught the attention of Earle Brown at the BMI awards.

Listening to my music today you may not be able to tell that I had such a strong interest in the European avant-garde, yet it was that early experimentation for me that helped mold and discipline my process today.  However, it was also not my language and I was lucky to realize this early on. I was mesmerized by their style but the ideas that created their music were not mine. My sound has gradually evolved over many years by trying to imbue each piece with my own ideas. I’ve written everything from piano pieces, string quartets, and wind quintets to vocal, chamber ensemble, choral and orchestral pieces. With each new commission, I feel I am developing my voice. I cannot say that about my pieces from my early 20s yet they somehow helped me get recognition.

The difference between writing a film score and writing a piano concerto is that I am working with a director and serving the needs of the film as opposed to working for myself. I have written many scores for documentary films. When scoring, I always try to give the music an organic connection with the film whether it’s using an instrument or borrowing a folk melody seen or heard in the film. For example, with the silent documentary Native New Yorker (which won the Tribeca Film Festival) I scored it with instruments you see buskers playing. With my recent piano concerto as with other concert works, I can focus solely on the abstraction of sound.

It’s only fair to ask: do you have a musical hero?

Schoenberg without a doubt.

I can say from personal experience that even musicians in music conservatories shy away from new compositions.  What is the biggest barrier that modern day composers face when presenting their works to the public?

Yes. That can happen. In my experience when I was at University of Illinois and then at Stanford, I was able to find musicians willing to play my music. It was good experience getting feedback from these players who were friends of mine. It was only after I left school that it became a challenge.

In my opinion, there is not a single barrier but three that are interrelated. And, in a sense they are not exclusive to music but to almost any new endeavor.

1.  Money to create and produce something new.

2. A platform to present what you produced and,

3. Using that platform effectively to reach an audience.

Once barriers 1 and 2 are met, number 3 – trying to reach an audience poses a challenge. How to get people excited and interested in coming out to hear live music and taking a chance on something new and different and, perhaps even a little demanding is where the classical music world should put more energy.

Do you find that modern audiences are excited to hear premieres of works?  After all, that’s how all the great Classical composers got their start! 

It all depends on the venue and the vibe. I think it’s vital that audiences meet composers at a concert. Audiences always have an opportunity to see and, or meet a conductor, soloist or orchestra members yet it is ironic that composers are often overlooked. I think audiences would get more excited about new pieces if they were given an opportunity to have some sort of human connection even if it’s only to see the composer take a bow. Question and answer sessions before or after a concert also help foster communication.

So, in answer to your question, I do not really think audiences are generally excited about hearing premieres of new works, but they could be. It’s all about communication, reaching out and saying hey, check this out, it’s something new, meet the composer, hear him talk about his music, we think you might connect with his sound or what inspired him, etc. I think it’s also helpful when the musicians performing the music get a chance to meet the composer.

I think the MSO’s Opus One Series is making a great step forward in reaching out to audiences. A smaller, relaxed venue can create a more personal connection for the audience and performers.

I’m interested in hearing more about your chamber music group, OCTET.  For all of you readers who aren’t familiar with OCTET, it’s an awesome New York-based music ensemble dedicated to performing contemporary compositions that push boundaries.  What inspired you to start OCTET?

What inspired me to start OCTET was the need to hear my music. It’s always been a challenge to get performances. I wanted to take control of getting my music performed and recorded. I also wanted to create a distinctive ensemble sound. Our instrumentation is sax, trumpet, trombone, drums, piano, keyboards, vocals, and bass. We are a scaled down big band playing contemporary classical.

(You can hear the ensemble at our website and on our blog.)

Let’s talk about the piece MSOs Opus One is performing on March 1 and 2, Zydeco Madness.   You’ve told me before that this piece was your response and memorial to the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina.  What connection do you have to Louisiana? 

I lived in New Orleans for a year and a half before transferring to Champaign-Urbana. I remember the seasonal storms and floods and walking around in 3 feet of water years before Katrina. When Katirna happened, I asked myself why are these people being neglected and forgotten.

Initially, it was a solo accordion piece, because the lead instrument in a Zydeco band is typically a button accordion. I chose Bayan accordion which is a very large button accordion with a wider range than the accordions you see in Zydeco bands. The Bayan accordion is what one studies in the conservatory. You also generally play the Bayan sitting down because of its weight.

My piece does not emulate the Zydeco sound, which is very much tied into blues and creole music, so much as paint a picture or a mood around the events of Katrina using an accordion. The piece is episodic, jump-cutting from one event to the next like a news report.

It was premiered by a great Russian Bayan virtuoso named Stas Venglevski. I created a string orchestra version shortly after. Watch a performance of Stas playing here.

You originally wrote Zydeco Madness for solo accordion.  What prompted you to write it for String Orchestra?

By expanding it for string orchestra, I was able to reach a larger scale of sound, create different textures with the original material and give the piece wider exposure. Also, we all saw horrific news reports of people’s stuff floating, drifting and burning in currents slick with oil. I had this vision of someone’s accordion floating in this mess, and morphing into some giant monster accordion dripping with the fallout of toxic sludge. In a sense, the string orchestra was like a giant accordion.

Solo accordion and String Orchestra obviously sound very different.  Do you prefer hearing this piece one way or the other?

No preference. I love the way Stas plays this piece and he usually amplifies himself in order to get the scale of sound I’m looking for. I also am very happy with the way the string orchestra version came out. They each make a powerful statement in their own way.

Do you like that your piece will be performed in a non-traditional venue?  MSO Opus One always performs in non-traditional venues.

Very much. I am very excited about this performance with the MSO at the Rumba Room. I think the MSO Opus One Series has the right idea about how to reach a wider audience. Hopefully there will be people at the Rumba Room who having never heard a live orchestra may consider coming to a concert hall performance in the future. For anyone attending, it’s a cool vibe to sip a drink in a relaxed atmosphere and connect with the music up close.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s such a pleasure to be working with the MSO and I am very excited to hear them play!

Thank you so much for your time!  We are really excited to hear your piece!


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  1. […] Interview with William Susman, composer of Zydeco Madness […]

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