Composer Marc Mellits discusses his new work for the Cheswatyr New Music Initiative , to be given its world premiere by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on February 4, 2006 in Carnegie Hall.
The composers receiving this commission were selected by the partners in the consortium participating in the project. How did you learn that you had been selected, and how did you feel?
Marc Mellits: Richard Kessler from the American Music Center contacted me directly and told me over the phone, and then Lyn Liston, also from AMC, contacted me. You can imagine how it felt – tremendous. I felt humbled that so many people thought so highly of my music. First there was elation, and then, almost immediately, came fear. Eventually you end up somewhere in between these two emotions, which I think is a good musical place to be.
Were you familiar with Orpheus, and what did you think of their work?
M.M.: Absolutely. Orpheus is one of my favorite performing ensembles in the U.S. I have heard them many times. I have longed to write for them for quite some time, actually. For any composer, this is the ideal chamber orchestra.
Orpheus has given many world premieres and frequently involves composers in the rehearsal process. Do you hope to take part in rehearsals of your new work, or do you prefer to stay out of the way?
M.M.: I would welcome any chance to take part in the rehearsals, and eagerly look forward to it. However, I prefer to let the musicians bring life to my music through their own interpretation. I will certainly be present at the rehearsals to help in any way I can, and I always enjoy doing that. But I also do not feel that my music is written in stone. There is some room for interpretation and I always welcome new musical thoughts.
The Cheswatyr commission comes with no predetermined theme for the finished work. Do you find that liberating, or do you find that having some direction is helpful?
M.M.: Having the instrumentation and approximate length of the work is enough for me. I just love writing music, and it does not matter too much to me if a commissioning organization wants to provide me with some sort of theme (they usually do not) or with any extra-musical ideas, or not. I imagine it is best to have a clean slate, to allow me the artistic freedom to develop my musical ideas, but I would never be opposed to working within certain extra-musical parameters. For me, the joy is in putting pencil to paper, and with a group like Orpheus, I have almost no limits to what I want to do musically.
How do musical ideas occur to you? When you sit down to compose, do you already have ideas in mind, or do you approach each work as a blank slate?
M.M.: I approach each new work as if I were entering a new world. At least I try to do this, but I am sure one can find links between my pieces and a certain prevailing sound sometimes. I am thinking about music and composing music in my head constantly, all day and all night long. I will sometimes jot down a few lines of music on the back of a receipt and stick it in my pocket, or I have been known to even write a few words of text into my cell phone, to remind me later of what I wanted to do. Sometimes these ideas make it into a work, but more often they do not. What does happen is when I sit down at the piano and start to work out the ideas I have had, they invariably lead to much better musical ideas. I might be a bit old fashioned, but I almost always compose using only pencil and paper. The best computer sequencer you could ever have is your brain. I like to be near a piano as well. Writing music is a very physical thing for me. I think through my fingers as I play musical ideas on the piano, and often I will have one hand on the piano and the other with a pencil. So, musical ideas occur to me in a variety of ways, usually all interconnected.
As composers, sometimes it is easy for us to forget that we mostly deal with "sound" and communication. Writing music for me is working out a game of pitches, rhythm, texture, sound, all the time remembering that this is going to be played by people, not machines, so I am also constantly thinking of practicality, of physically how the music will be played on the instruments. Finally, this music is going to be performed by people, for people. There is going to be communication from the stage to the audience, and as basic as this sounds, this is often overlooked. So I try to concentrate on the combination of what I am trying to communicate to the audience, how this is going to be interpreted, what is the best way to notate this all combined with the musical structure, my pitch games, rhythm, texture... I try to follow the musical ideas as best as I can. For me, it is almost like the piece of music already exists, and I am merely trying to find it.
Your work has great energy -- not to mention great titles. What are your musical influences? And where do the titles come from?
M.M.: Energy in music is of the utmost importance to me. I always want to hear motion, moving forward. From beat to beat, measure to measure, line to line, a constant forward motion – it is how I work. It does not have to be fast motion, it can be quite slow, as long as it goes somewhere. Influences can come from virtually anywhere. I am influenced by everything I see, here, touch, everything. It all comes back to music for me, whatever I experience.
I love these wacky titles, which are descriptive in a way but completely open to interpretation. I like titles where everyone can find their own meaning with the music. A title that tells the listener what the piece is about is something I am not interested in. Instead, I try to choose titles that make the listener think about what it might mean. It forces one to pay close attention to the music, and it is fun for the audience to try to come up with the meaning behind the title. Sometimes there is no meaning whatsoever, sometimes there is a meaning, or more often, multiple meanings. It does not matter, because the point of these weird titles is to come up with something bizarre enough to make the listener not only laugh a little, but at the same time have fun searching for a meaning.
You asked about musical influences and titles together, which makes sense for me in another way as well. I do not think up all my titles by myself. My friends have helped me come up with more than a few. I often rely on my musical soul mate, Dominic Frasca, to help me out with titles. He not only has a gift for music, but also for coming up with plays of words that make perfect titles. He has also been a tremendous influence on me and my music. He was able to find something musically that was always in me, and help me nourish it into the music that I write today.
What shape is the new work taking? Any particular theme or notion behind the piece? Anything you have done in the new piece that has surprised you?
M.M.: I came to Romania in August specifically to work on this piece. I have locked myself in an apartment in the center of Bucharest, alone, with only a piano, paper, and a pencil. For some reason, I write music freely and easily here. I do not know if it is the Romanian people and lifestyle that influence my music or just make it easier to work here. But whatever it is, I have been very happy with the work I have been doing here. It is a continuation of what I have already started, but the ideas are getting more focused. It is a multi-movement work so far, and might stay that way. It is up to the music, not up to me. The movements will be on the short side, trying to focus on the musical ideas at hand, and maintain a sense of purity and direction. I am having an absolute blast writing this so far. As far as surprises, yes, there were some. I had worked out a lot of musical material in my head, and had a certain direction. I was quite afraid to start putting pencil to paper, so I kept coming up with more and more ideas in my head and thought I had a nice direction. However, every time I sat down at the piano and played with these ideas, something else would occur to me, based on these ideas, but different. The piece started to move quickly in a certain direction which was opposed to what I had thought it would be. This is usually a good sign!
Many new works are given only one or two performances, and then vanish. One of the important features of the Cheswatyr project is that multiple performances of the new works will be given. How do you feel about that as a composer, and as a concertgoer?
M.M.: Nothing could be better or more beneficial for me, Orpheus, and hopefully the audience! It is awful when a work gets only a few performances and then vanishes, but it does sometimes happen. I am overjoyed that Orpheus is programming multiple performances. That is wonderful.