or, why I love new music
by Erica Jacobs-Perkins (interviewing Charles Zoll)
Classical musicians can easily be trapped into feeling that our art is dead, that everything we do is at best an accurate reenactment of something that was over and done with hundreds of years ago, or at worst, a mechanical transformation of dots on a page into the sounds they represent. Any MIDI file can do that, so what’s the point of having humans do it instead? What’s the point of doing the same old thing, day in, day out? Usually, if we look deep within ourselves, we can come up with at least a few convincing reasons, otherwise we wouldn’t find ourselves continuing to do this odd thing that we do: Revisiting old works reveals new truths; human imperfections are necessary to create great art, etc. etc. But it’s still sometimes difficult to convince myself that it’s worthwhile for me to interpret anew a piece that countless violinists have played over the centuries. Maybe I’ll add a slide that no one else ever thought to do. Maybe my version will find someone who never heard the piece before, and it will touch them in a way they deeply and hungrily needed. That is a good and important and life-changing reason to engage in this strange practice of doing the same thing over and over. Even so, it’s one of the hardest things for non-musicians, or even non-classical musicians, to understand about what we do: very few serious performers are also serious composers. Both activities require such a high level of expertise that doing just one of them is usually enough to take up all of a person’s time and creative energy.
So that means that musicians like me, who almost exclusively play music written by other people (with the occasional tentative improvisation thrown in), can feel a little bit stuck. I’m not actually creating, I’m just interpreting. Sometimes, though, there comes an opportunity to not only make live music, but also to make living music. Working with a living, breathing composer is one of the most exciting things I can imagine doing, and it’s even more fun when that composer is also a friend, like Charles. Suddenly, instead of spending hours of rehearsal time arguing over whether the subito pianissimo happens on the downbeat or the pickup, or whether Beethoven intended to put accents in two of the parts and not in the other two, or what the heck he meant by the carrots over those eighth notes, it’s possible to send a text and get a clear answer within a few minutes. Not only that, but we get to play an active role in breathing life into this new piece of music. If Charles is AMALGAM’s parent, then the Cygnus Trio members are its midwives. Our Youtube recording will be the definitive version that future musicians will refer to; other violinists will copy, or deliberately rebel from, my vibrato and my slides. It’s heady to have that kind of power!
I’ve had an interest in playing recently composed music for about five years at this point, but this was my first experience commissioning and premiering a work that was written specifically for me. I could talk at length about how much fun I’ve had in the process, but I’ve taken up enough space for one blog post. Instead, I’m going to have Charles tell you what it’s like to painstakingly craft a work of art and then relinquish control of its entry into the world to three goofs like us.
ERICA: Can you describe your vision for AMALGAM?
CHARLES:Well, to start at the beginning, you and I first met Talis Festival in Switzerland, but learned quickly that we actually went McGill at the same time. Although we probably passed each other in the halls everyday, I had my head down as I struggled to break out of my shell in a foreign country with a different language both verbally and musically. In many ways, AMALGAM is a reflection of that awkward period in my education—at times the piece acts controlled and refined, and at others it moves hurriedly through a tumult of mismatched ideas. The personality is as close to manic as I usually reach myself, with tempo pairings like “belligerent” and “reserved,” “awkwardly romantic” and “batshit crazy.” We learn from whatever environment we find ourselves in, appropriating the aspects that stand out to us, and sometimes, at least in my case, we find out later that we allowed traits to become ingrained that maybe we didn’t intend to become so. Thus, the sonic world sounds, as you affectionately put it, “very McGill.” I managed to avoid knocking things and blowing into other things that aren’t usually knocked on or blown into on purpose, but I did incorporate a performance element popular in rock music, which I will leave up to the guitarist to deem worthwhile or not. If you’re like me and most millennials, you get distracted easily. Let AMALGAM be your new ADHD medication.
ERICA: What was your creative process for AMALGAM? Where did you start? What other projects were you juggling at the same time?
CHARLES: I’ve been dealing with some fear lately regarding composition, and with AMALGAM I decided to just “go for it” and not worry so much about what some people (like my professors) might say. I’ll speak more about this in the next question. I usually edit and redact as I compose, so the process in writing this piece was a departure from that—I never told myself “no.” The title and the reference to Parks and Rec arose naturally from this weird way of composing, as I discovered more about the guitar and visualized one of the characters in the show (Andy Dwyer, your typical loveable oaf) playing rock in this small chamber ensemble. I’ll just mention that at the time of writing the piece I was dealing, yet again, with my masters thesis. Please direct further questions regarding this to my psychiatrist.
ERICA: You mentioned that AMALGAM in some ways reflects the period when you were studying at McGill. How would you say your compositional style has developed since then?
CHARLES: My university experiences have included a lot of pre-composing, which is like thinking about something before you write it down, except you’re also thinking about the thought before committing to the something. I see a lot of composers trying out this pre-composing thing—many of my colleagues at McGill did it very well. But for me it has become steadily more debilitating to my output and has turned me, I think, into a generally more pessimistic human. It didn’t start at McGill, but the act of listening to my friends’ thoughts about music forced me to confront the emptiness and pessimism that had been gradually setting in since my undergrad. Very depressing stuff! But I think it worked out for the best, because, looking back, throwing away the idea of pre-composition has made me a better composer.
ERICA: What was the most fun thing about writing this piece? The most difficult?
CHARLES: I definitely enjoyed writing for the unique instrumentation! I’ve always been a fan of unusual combinations of instruments, so this was a fun challenge. The most difficult issue stemmed from the instrumentation, because at times I struggled with engaging the guitar in an equal role. I think I ended up making the guitar the most important instrument, though! (Side note from Jonathan: At first, not knowing Charles’s musical background, I thought that he might have been a guitarist, or had experience with the instrument; the music is really well written and idiomatic, which a lot of composers struggle to capture in the guitar. It’s a very fun part to play!)
ERICA: Cygnus is premiering AMALGAM on Saturday this week and you haven’t heard us play it yet. How do you feel about that? (How do you feel about this loaded question?)
CHARLES: A little nervous, to be honest! What’s putting me at ease, though, it that I’ve only received a couple of clarification questions—I usually have many confusing or otherwise questionable choices in my scores, in part because I use techniques I haven’t seen or tried before whenever I write a new piece, as many composers do. I believe in you, though, and in the end, after I sent it off to you, it’s not really “my” piece anymore—it’s yours, and that’s a beautiful thing!
The world premiere of AMALGAM can be heard at Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, on August 13th at 4:30 p.m. For more performances of AMALGAM and other works, check our events page.