Exclusive: Interview With Steven Stucky

The Sound Post Welcomes Ian Salmon

by: Colin Oettle

Steven Stucky
Our very own Ian Salmon conducted an exclusive interview with composer Steven Stucky regarding the performance of his work, Jeu de Timbres. The piece will be performed by the Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra this Saturday, October 3rd, 2009 in Ford Hall at Ithaca College under the direction of Dr. Jeff Meyer. Click to the full article for the video and transcript of the interview.

This is the premier of our video blog series, and will be followed by another interview tomorrow, October 2nd, 2009, with Ithaca College Director of Orchestras Jeff Meyer. So stay tuned, and keep an eye on our new videos page.

SoundPost News: Hi everyone, this is Ian from SoundPost News. I am very fortunate to have a very special guest today. I am here with Steven Stucky, Professor of Composition at Cornell University. He is associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he was the recipient of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and he is widely regarded as one of today’s leading composers.

Mr. Stucky, thank you so much for taking some time to speak with us today.

We are here to talk about one of your more recent works, Jeu de Timbres, which will be performed by the Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra, this Saturday, October 3, under the direction of Jeffrey Meyer.

Could you tell us about the 2003 commission of this work?

Steven Stucky: It was an odd project. The National Symphony, under Leonard Slatkin at that time, developed a project in which they were going to commission encores from something like 10 or 15 composers. So I’m not sure what the philosophy was—whether it was a kind of way of hiding the new music in a safe spot on the program, or it was a way of stretching their dollars—you know because an encore doesn’t cost very much, but I think there was a time limit of 3 to 4 minutes—this piece is 4 minutes—and it was scheduled to be played at the end of a concert in January 2004 that was part of a French music festival. So that led me down the French path. The title, Jeu de Timbres, has two meanings—you could say “play of colors” or something like that, and that’s not a bad description of the piece because it’s all about colorful orchestration and vivid textures and so on, which is a usual thing. But Jeu de Timbres is also a regular phrase of French musicians. It is the name of the Glockenspiel in French. And I suppose the Glockenspiel plays a little in the piece, so it makes little inside joke on the musicians to use that phrase.

SPN: Yesterday in rehearsal with symphony orchestra you spoke about certain distinctive French moments in this piece. You said it’s not something very unique to you, that it’s something to be found in your other works. Is there a particular French composer you identify with particularly?

SS: Well, Debussy. But there’s a longer answer which is to say that the whole tradition of early 20th century French music is kind of my home territory I think. I think Debussy is one of the greatest giants in the history of music. I think more on a daily basis about Ravel because of his lay of hand on the orchestra. So in this little piece, Jeu de Timbres, there is one Ravel quote and another kind of semi quote which you may notice or may not—doesn’t matter—but they do fit. In other words, it’s already a sound role where Ravel doesn’t sound out of place.

SPN: Speaking more about the ensemble and the director in particular, this is not your first time collaborating with Dr. Jeffery Meyer. What do you look forward to about hearing his interpretations of your pieces?

SS: Well you know what’s happened at Ithaca College over last few years is that a number of young, really bright, really energetic, really interesting people have joined the family. In fact, now over quite a long time. And so, those of us who are involved, especially in contemporary music at Cornell, have developed a really strong collaboration. Didn’t used to exist. These two places used to ignore each other. But there’s a very strong traffic now, especially for 20th century music, and Jeff Meyer is right at the center of that. He’s a very brilliant musician as a pianist and composer and conductor, I’ve been very impressed watching him work with the orchestra as a conductor. I watched him do rehearsals of Sally Lamb’s piece a couple of years ago and that was first time I saw what he could do. And we talked frequently. We’d hang out together and make a programs and scheme about his conducting course that he’s started. And talk about his programs in St. Petersburg, where he’s played my music. So it’s a great pleasure to finally be doing this here at home. I’ve lived in Ithaca for nearly 40 years and what I mainly do is write for orchestra, but we almost never hear it here. Because the infrastructure for my orchestral pieces usually doesn’t exist. But I’ll tell you this—the Ithaca College Orchestra—I heard a rehearsal yesterday—as we are speaking now. It was very very good. really very impressed. All throughout the orchestra, winds brass and strings, percussion. Really first rate. It doesn’t sound like a student performance at all.

SPN: You began teaching at Conrell in 1980 I believe, so do you feel the overall direction of music in the Ithaca community and the surrounding communites is really encouraging the new music scene?

SS: There is a surprisingly good audience here for the kinds of concerts that ensemble X used to put on, or the concerts they put on at Ithaca College. Chris Kim and Cindy Johnson are doing a lot at Cornell. Jeff Meyer and Steve Peterson and the choral program are also doing a lot. I’ve written a choral piece actually for Larry Doebler’s choral festival. They have a featured composer every year, and this year it’s me, so I’ll be on South Hill more often than usual this fall

SPN: So for our viewers who are going to be in the audience on Saturday night, you mentioned there’s going to be a small Ravel quote you might pick up, you might not.

SS: Yeah, don’t look for it. I always think if you go into concert thinking it’s an exam, and there’s some questions you have to answer along the way, you’re not going to enjoy it very much. I always think that the best advice to listeners, and I include myself, is relax and see what happens. Don’t think of it as an obstacle course, or as a lecture, or as a seminar or as something that has a specific content that you are supposed to be tuned into. In my aesthetic, music that doesn’t grab you because it’s lively or vivid or colorful or dark or dramatic or emotional—that somehow doesn’t immediately get your attention—is failing anyway. And that’s not the listener’s fault—its the composer’s.

SPN: If I were to flip the question from an orchestral musician’s standpoint, if you had to say anything to them two days out from performance, one rehearsal—dress rehearsal left, what would it be?

SS: Well they’re already doing very well. The piece is a little bit hard—in fact it’s not just a little bit hard, it’s quite hard—because it was meant to be a brilliant showpiece for a top professional orchestra. So the fact that they’re playing it as if they are a top professional orchestra, and that it sounds like a brilliant showpiece, means they’re doing the right things. I was an orchestral musician for a long time at a fairly low level—I mean college and community orchestras—I was never really a full fledged professional. But I played viola for probably 20 or 30 years in orchestras. I know what it’s like to be in there; it’s my favorite place to be, I miss it. And I try to write orchestral music always from the players point of view—that there’s something not necessarily easy—in fact often hard—but fun to work out. Engaging—real stuff in your part. Its true that tuba probably has mostly rests and footballs [editor’s note: “footballs” refers to whole notes], but the strings and winds usually get something good to play.

3 Responses to “Exclusive: Interview With Steven Stucky”

  1. Eric says:

    This is a great idea. Looking forward to more interviews, and I hope you can continue to cover new music events in Ithaca, NY!

  2. Austin says:

    Looking forward to more of these Composer interviews! It is so insightful to hear from living composers.



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