Today’s interviewee is composer and musicologist Devin Burke, who has a particular interest in how music relates to the deaf community, and has composed music targeted at the deaf (which sounds almost too easy, but is actually a fascinating concept.) He’s also co-host of the online radio show Music Declassified.
Devin, can you tell me a little bit about yourself – where you’re from and why you decided to pursue music?
I’m technically from the great American Southwest (New Mexico), but I’ve lived all over the US, and my family moved to Sweden for two years when I was old enough for it to be a wonderfully eye-opening experience. As for music, my mother is a musician and my father is an engineer, so I think one reason why I became a composer is because I followed in both their footsteps; from my mother I learned about the live and social aspects of making music, and from my father I inherited the curiosity about how music “works,” how to put it together myself.
How would you describe your style – what characterizes your music?
It changes from piece to piece quite a bit. Often I get inspired by text in some way, or some extra-musical idea, which may or may not be explicitly stated in the music but which shapes the way I write. Every style or technique is fair game if it fits the moment, but I do not set out specifically to write “collage music.”
What was the last piece you wrote? What should listeners expect if they hear it?
The last piece I wrote was a cantata for tenor, soprano, choir, strings, and piano called “With Stars and Shells, Rest in Peace.” You can download the sheet music here. I wrote it because I was feeling disconnected to the wars in the Middle East and unable to do anything about it. Writing the piece was a way for me to reengage with what was happening, and I read soldiers’ blogs, writings by families of soldiers as well as literary texts about war. The texts in the piece took bring together all of these perspectives. A listener would hear many different kinds of music, from a large twelve-tone mensuration canon to more quasi-aleatoric moments to a minimalist movement to a tonal double fugue on “Requiescat in Pace/Et in Terra Pax/Dona Nobis Pacem.” The contrasts reflect the different perspectives of each text on the war.
What are you currently working on?
Music that incorporates alternative ways of hearing and specifically music that is inspired by the Deaf community. In 2003, I wrote a piece for saxophone quartet and American Sign Language performer/interpreter. The commission asked for voice and sax quartet, but through an unexpected series of events, I got the idea to reinterpret voice as sign language. I ended up working on it for six months with a wonderful woman who taught me a lot about sign language and the Deaf community, and each time she performed the piece, we had members of the Deaf community in attendance. The whole experience changed my life, and made me rethink what is musical, what is expressive, and what is communicative. It also made me think about how people use music to bring people together, but also sometimes to shut people out. So, long story short, I am working on some new music that follows up where that first piece, which was called Movements, left off. Since writing that piece, I have also been doing a great deal of research on the dialectical relationship between the history of music and the history of deafness, beginning especially around the end of the 18th century (Beethoven being only one well-known example of this history). I just finished a document on this subject, and my work in this area will definitely inform the music that I write. The new piece will be scored for percussion ensemble and will be premiered at Case Western Reserve University in spring 2011 under the direction of Paul Cox.
What do you enjoy most about composing?
Collaboration. When I was just starting, composing was a pretty solitary experience. One summer, when I was twelve, I got bit by the composition bug and made a conscious decision to spend hours regularly improvising at the piano and cello, just to see what would come out. As I got better, and began to give my compositions to other people to play, the fun of it became the collaborative aspect. Now what I enjoy most is the interaction of the whole network that surrounds a musical performance: the composer, the performers, the audience, and the venue. Call me old-fashioned, but I love the sense of community that can evolve out of that.
What do you find most difficult about composing?
Finding a balance between virtuosity and simplicity. I try to pare my music down as I revise it to make it more clear for the listener and musicians. I have found, though, that sometimes the more clear you make your music, some people will confuse virtuosity and opaqueness for substance and will not take the music as seriously. One cure for this: writing for youth ensembles! Writing for a high school string orchestra was probably the hardest piece I have ever had to write, because you can’t assume anything and have to make your intentions absolutely clear and simple.
What ‘hidden gem’ of a piece would you recommend to people?
Here’s the first thing that comes to mind: I love Frank Martin’s music and hope that he continues to receive more recognition. I would recommend two pieces; the moderately thorny but hauntingly moving Polyptyque for violin and two small string orchestras, and a more accessible but aggressively innovative powerhouse of a piece, the Piano Trio on Irish Folk Songs [Klaviertrio Über Irländische Volkslieder].
For the Polyptyque, there are a number of good recordings out there, including one by Yehudi Menuhin, who commissioned the piece (and said “When I play the “Polyptyque” by Frank Martin I feel the same responsibility, the same exaltation as when I play Bach’s ‘Chaconne.’”) For the Trio, by far the best recording I have come across is by Trio Artemis. No one comes close to the energy that they put into their performance.
Great suggestion – I love Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, which I sang when I was in college. Are there any upcoming composers that you particularly admire? Anyone we should keep an eye on?
Scott Perry and Mei-Fang Lin have always impressed me. Scott is extremely talented, and does everything; his myspace page is http://www.myspace.com/saccobakunin. He is working on his PhD at UC Davis, while Mei-Fang is teaching at Texas Tech. She is ridiculously good, and it has always astounded me how fast her music makes its way into the hands of performers, like it has a mind of its own. You can listen to some of Mei-Fang’s music here.
Do you have any sound clips of your compositions that you can share with us today?
Yes. This first piece is called Mein Vater, mein Vater, a fantasy on Franz Schubert’s Der Erlkönig for solo clarinet, performed by David Hein, clarinet.
What I love the most about the clarinet is the amazing palette of colors and characters available within its range. When I was asked to write a solo piece, I thought of Schubert’s setting of Der Erlkönig because in that lied, he asks one singer to sing three very different voices. The drama of Schubert’s setting hinges upon the way one singer creates the impression that these voices interact, and especially in the way the voice of the Elf-king eventually overwhelms the range and style of the father and son, who repeatedly calls to his father “Mein Vater, mein Vater!”. I wanted to do something similar with the clarinet, to explore the different voices in the instrument while freely borrowing motives and ideas from the Schubert lied. Since the clarinet can do many things that a singer cannot, I also wanted to extend some of Schubert’s ideas in various ways. One doesn’t necessarily need to know the Schubert setting inside and out for the piece to work I think, but in the past it has made a nice program to perform the Schubert back-to-back with the fantasy. You can download the sheet music for Mein Vater, mein Vater here.
On a personal note, I very much enjoyed collaborating with Jordan Webster, for whom I wrote the piece.
This second recording is from my String Trio, Mvt. II (Largo cantabile), performed by Courtney Hanna-McNamara, Hillary Nordwell, and Steven Girard.
This is an earlier piece of mine, written in 2000, but I thought I’d share it because I think it has aged well (so far!) In the context of the complete String Trio, this Largo cantabile is surrounded by two perpetual-motion movements that are nothing like it. This second movement represents a quiet eye-of-the-storm, and can function as a stand-alone piece for this reason. The harmonic vocabulary of the movement uses non-functional harmony: stacked fifths function as a kind of authentic cadence, and stacked fourths function as a kind of half cadence throughout the piece. These intervals tie the movement to sounds of the distant past, especially the cadential fifths of medieval and renaissance vocal music. Like early music singers, the string players are asked to play with very little vibrato. Overall, the feeling of this movement might be described as a quiet, almost confined kind of expression that continually tries to break through.
Some additional sound clips are available on the web at http://devinburke.wordpress.com/.
Do you have a website that people can visit?
I have some of my music up at http://devinburke.wordpress.com/ and I also have an online radio show that I co-host via Skype with a friend in Chicago, Andrew Cashner. The show is called Music Declassified, and you can catch it on our website http://www.musicdeclassified.com or on Live365. I also have a third site that I am starting to put together as a resource especially for younger composers at http://composersrehearsing.tumblr.com/ It’s meant to be forum for composers about how to rehearse their works and will have lots of video footage of composers rehearsing. It’s the kind of thing that I would have loved to have known about as an undergrad composer.
Thank you to composer Devin Burke for taking part in this interview today, and for sharing your music with us.