In Their Own Words

Marc Mellits, composer, discusses his new work Brick, for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Aaron Grad

Aaron Grad: How is this commission from the Cheswatyr New Music Initiative different from a typical orchestra commission?

Marc Mellits: Rehearsals! Orpheus requested that the score and parts be ready for them three months prior to the first performance. Most composers are used to handing off the parts to the performing group a few weeks ahead of time. Three months shows Orpheus' commitment to the music. Not to mention the fact that they are playing it on tour both here in the US and also in Europe.

AG: What do you gain by having this performance broadcast on WNYC and other NPR stations around the country?

MM: It is just a simple matter of exposure. It allows me to put my music into people's ears, and the radio component “amplifies” that, in more ways than one.

AG: Where does the title Brick come from?

MM: Brick is for my mom. The piece has a lot to do with her, and with her father—my grandfather—who was a very important person in my life. He was a carpenter, which is where Brick and the carpenter-like movement titles come in. A lot of the titles have a direct relevance to certain things that have happened in my life, relating directly to my mom. Some are more for my grandfather, and some are just complete nonsense! Maybe they do not really mean something directly, but it gives the audiences something to try to search for. It all has to do with bringing them in closer to the music, to have them listening a little bit more intimately.

AG: How would you describe your musical language?

MM: I try to be very direct and pure, and consider myself to be a sort of constructionist. Music to me, is constructed, or “put together,” built, like a house. The house must have a solid foundation, something for the melody and harmony to by constructed on top of. In the end, all I am trying to do is communicate directly with my audience through the players on the stage. I want to write music that I think of as being complicated simple music. The complication is all beneath the surface, which is where I think it belongs. A lot of my music is the liberation of the accompaniment. I love accompaniment. When I listen to Mozart and Haydn, my favorite parts are always the background, beneath the melody, what's going on behind everything else. In my music I try to bring some of that to the forefront.

AG: What are some of those complications beneath the surface of the music?

MM: For a note in a piece at any given point, there has to be more than one reason that that pitch has to be there. It all has to do with little pitch and rhythm games I like to play: playing around with pitches on the paper, moving one, substituting another. The games come about as I am writing the piece, and in a way, it is they that actually hold the music together, like the bricks in a house that are positioned in certain patterns, and still support the structure. The way the rhythm fits is also like a game, like inserting rests in between groups of notes, and then moving the rest around until it cycles back to the beginning, and then changing that into something else.

AG: How do you approach writing for an orchestra?

MM: To me, music is generating as much as you can from a limited amount of material, and a lot of that has to do with orchestration. A certain chord has a certain timbre in my mind for this piece, which means a certain orchestration. Part of it was pre-described for me because I was thinking of certain sounds of certain players. For example, the movement Refrigerator Wisdom was intended for the bassoonist Frank Morelli. I heard him play years ago, and I had never heard a bassoon played like that in my life. I knew that Frank was going to be playing this, I knew what kind of solo I was going to write, and I was thinking of this whole story behind it, and everything fell into place. I wanted to let Frank simply let his Bassoon sing as only he can do. A simple line, with plenty of long notes, to give Frank a chance to bring life and color to the line. He has such a beautiful sound, that all one needs to do is give him a few long tones, and then just sit back and enjoy his masterful playing. Not just the harmonies, but also the orchestration itself was very specific to that sound.

AG: Can you describe the mood or inspiration for each movement?

Gloria is my mother's middle name, and seemed like an appropriate title for the opening movement. This was the first thing I wrote, and I was thinking of this bright, sun-like opening for the whole piece.

Terracotta Soup: This is one of two scherzo-like movements in this piece. They are the most direct movements of all. As for the title, my mom crafts beautiful pottery, and is also an excellent cook…I await the day when these two hobbies combine.

Purple Dandelion: I remembered a time when I was a kid, and I was outside looking for some flowers to pick for my mom. I picked some and brought them inside, but she was busy on the phone. I was trying to get her attention, and I kept pulling her shirt, and finally she paid attention to me and I gave her the flowers. And then I heard her say to her friend on the phone, “Oh, that was just Marc, he gave me some weeds.” Because what I had given her were actually dandelions. When you are a little kid you think they are flowers, not weeds. Then of course I got upset, so she made a big deal and put them in a little cup on the windowsill where everyone could see them. They died a few days later and turned a beautiful purple.

Refrigerator Wisdom: I often go to visit Romania, sometimes especially to write music, and last summer I went to specifically to write this piece. One night I was coming home from going out with a few friends, and I noticed a very poor, dirty gypsy family who was living on the street, in the center of town. There was a mother who was sleeping, and she had two kids with her. One looked like he was maybe three, and he was completely filthy. And the other, maybe eight months old, was nursing, even though the mother was asleep. I have lived in cities most of my life, and I have seen homeless, and it is not something that ends up shocking me any more. But for some reason I found it incredibly shocking, the fact that the baby was still trying to nurse from her sleeping mother. As I continued to walk on, I could not help to contrast the fact that my own baby daughter was home asleep in a warm crib, just as I had been once, long ago, with everything I needed, and here is a kid eight months old who has got nothing, and living on the street. It was tough to reconcile. And I remembered this list of things that my mom had on the fridge as I was growing up. Basically, it was a list of things that said if you treat a child like this, the child would grow up as such and such. So if you treat a child with love, or with hate, or if you strike a child, all these different things you can do to a child, it said a child would grow up like this or like that. It was a sweet thing that she had up on the fridge and I have always remembered it.

Red Hammer: My grandfather built a lot of his own tools, and they lasted forever, literally 80 years, or more. He had a big, heavy red hammer that was his favorite, which I own now and it is my favorite too. It was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of hammers. This movement is the second scherzo, and I wanted these movements to be incredibly honest, simple and direct. It occurred to me that that is one of the things that impressed me most about my grandfather, that he was a very simple person, a very honest and direct man.

Cinderblock Pudding: I remember working with my grandfather, rebuilding the steps outside of the kitchen door of my parents' house, and we were making cement. I learned many things from my grandfather, but I also learned many things from my mother, whom I know learned the exact same from her parents. My mom can swing a hammer like no one else, but she also has a delicate touch in the kitchen and is a wonderful cook, something she learned from her mother. Learning how to make cement or learning how to make pudding is simply learning how to very carefully arrange a few simple ingredients, but the skill to create both is similar. Composing music is not dissimilar to each of these tasks, so, in a way, my mom also taught me about composing music, with her not knowing how to read music at all.

Jacob's Ladder: There are two kinds of Jacob's Ladder. One is an old-fashioned toy from the 20's or 30's, where these pieces of wood connected by straps click and fold forever. A Jacob's Ladder is also an electrical device with two antennas that have sparks jumping between them. They shimmer up and then they start again from the bottom, following each other in step. This movement is a canon, and it is shimmering, and the violins are always two steps behind each other and following each other in a whirlwind effect.

-Interview by Aaron Grad