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Interview with Tod Machover: A composer’s process. By Barbara Siesel

I caught up with Tod Machover last month to learn about the new flute concerto he wrote for Carol Wincenc, which she premiered with the Bemidji, MN Symphony Orchestra on November 9, 2014.

Barbara: Congratulations on the new flute concerto- can you tell us a bit about the piece?

Tod: We just premiered the piece in Bemidji, MN a place that reminds me a little bit of Massachusetts. The big sky and the beautiful vivid colors, snow on grass, beautiful, a very nice place.

Barbara: How did the piece come to be commissioned? Can you tell us about your relationship with Carol Wincenc – how you met her?

Tod: I met Carol a very long time ago, after the summer of 11th grade, at The Aspen Festival and Music School. She was a student at Juilliard, and we became really good friends. It was a very important summer for me -- I went to Aspen as a cellist and played in the orchestra and I was also becoming interested in composing, it was a period when all of my different musical interests were jumbled up against each other. I had grown up playing classical repertoire, my mom’s a pianist, and I knew much more about classical music than anything else, but I was in 11th grade and I was interested in rock music, especially the improvising groups like the Grateful Dead. I listened to these groups quite a bit and I was trying to figure out -- what does this have to do with my classical music? My Dad was an engineer and was one of those people involved with computer graphics -- I grew up with very innovative technology around the house! That was the time when my ideas about music were starting to go beyond what could be done easily with traditional instruments. I was trying to get my cello to make different sounds, plugging it into amplifiers and trying various things out, and there was an electronic music studio at Aspen, so I did some of my first work in electronic music that summer. It was a real transition and Carol and I were buddies that summer and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. We hadn’t done a project together for awhile and we saw each other again after not seeing each other for awhile at the memorial service at Juilliard for the composer Milton Babbitt. He died 3-4 years ago, and although I studied with Elliott Carter I had done a lot of analysis with Babbitt. I went to the service and Carol was there and we got back in touch and she asked me if I would be interested in writing a flute concerto and of course I said I would and certainly for her!! We were looking at the best way to write the concerto and since she’s had a 10 year relationship with the Bemidji Symphony and especially with conductor Beverly Everett who conducts there and at the Bismarck Symphony as well. It turned out that they would be interested in commissioning the concerto, since this season is the 10th anniversary of Beverly Everett being music director and so the commission came together.

Barbara: The flute is very suited to extended techniques and electronic manipulation -- how did you, or did you, apply these techniques to “Breathless”?

Tod: Most of my music somehow blends traditional acoustic instruments with electronics in some form or another -- sometimes for sonic and timbre reasons, sometimes to extend the virtuosity of the performance, for all kinds of reasons. So from the beginning of this project I had the idea that I would create a new hyper- instrument for the flute. One of my students is interested in measuring gesture as well as sound, and you can buy a Microsoft Wii that actually will measure how a human being moves (when playing a game), and you can write software to do that pretty well, so I was thinking in the beginning this would be an ideal project for this, since the flute is actually one of the few virtuosic instruments that you can walk around with. You can play with great stillness and you can dramatize the music – move your arms, head, walk around, gymnastics! But I realized that we wouldn’t have that much rehearsal time with the symphony, not a huge budget project, so I decided that it would be a much better idea to make the electronics not connected to a hyper flute and have the electronics connected to a keyboard and make it a simple, not complicated piece for the orchestra. Especially since I think this will make the piece accessible to many other orchestras when Carol and other players want to perform the piece!

Barbara: Did you and Carol work together at all on the piece?

Tod: We had a certain amount of discussions -- I’m addicted to email and Carol loves text messages. (My daughters both prefer texting). I like email – it’s kind of like leaving a message on an answering machine, texting is more like a phone call, it’s so easy to not see them. Anyway this was a text relationship with Carol, she’d text me, she’d be on tour – “I have an idea about a certain register of the flute” or “are you going to use all the different flutes?” We got together a number of times in NY and I remember a brunch in Cambridge, just to talk about my feelings about the flute and her feelings about the piece. It’s funny – I love the flute – but I think because I’m a cellist I’m a big melody writer-- melody is often the first way that musical ideas’ come to me and my pieces are held together by melody. The melodies are often in the middle, in the tenor or alto voice with accompaniment on the top and bottom, like a meditation with things spinning around it and I often put the melody in the Bass (since I’m a cellist). For me the first big challenge was – I wanted the flute to be at the center all the time and that meant that your attention had to be at the top of texture. I spent a couple of sessions with Carol trying out some melodies and improvising with Carol, thinking about her playing. I decided that I really wanted to write the piece just for normal flute --you could write for piccolo and alto and bass flute and I really wanted it to be a continuous line on the C flute doing what it does best and also generally poised in the most comfortable register, not totally screeching at the top, maybe at certain times in the low register, but mostly in the (flute) sweet spot. That implies a certain kind of sonority and continuity. We got together in June when I’d written a fair amount of the piece, some if it melodic, some of it effects on the flute, some of it things I wanted to try with Carol back and forth. The best place to meet turned out to be NYC. I contacted a student of mine who runs music technology at NYU and we spent a day in the wonderful recording studio at NYU. We did some sound experiments and recorded a bunch of material which I then brought back to my studio in Boston and played with, tried what happens if this follows that, what happens if this sound becomes an echo if Carol plays it, and then bounce it around the room for example. That was something that we did in June and then I made some sketches, I worked first on the core parts of the flute melody and then I worked on unusual hallucinations or sort of crazy textures with the flute, using the recordings we had made. Carol’s playing freed up my imagination in a lot of ways and I found the shape and orchestration of the piece.

Barbara. You say that the piece takes us on a journey, recalling experimental music you were interested in as a 16 year old. What music might have been your 16 year old self’s inspiration?

Tod: In writing the piece I thought a lot about meeting Carol at 16 and trying to reconcile classical, electronic and rock music influences and also remembering back to high school. It’s one of the big moments of your life – you’re going to leave home and go out and make a life for yourself. It’s extremely anxiety producing for many people. I know for me, I felt that everything was possible, that everything I love should be able to find a place in what my life becomes. I really believed that at 16!   When I was putting Breathless together it all of sudden struck me that my younger daughter is now exactly the same age as I was when was when I was at Aspen. I’m seeing this feeling again though her eyes now, as she is planning college, how she’s going to pull together all the things that she cares about and that connection in time was really powerful for me. So I think this idea of looking back and remembering how this precious friendship started and what the world felt like then and seeing it again through my daughter is very meaningful.   Some parts of the piece are about looking back and thinking about what it feels like to think about the future. It’s only a 16 minute piece and it can’t do everything but these are some things that I was thinking about.

Barbara: Can you tell us how you use electronics in the piece and more about the structure of Breathless?

Tod: Well there is no direct manipulation – I do generally – the honest truth is that it’s difficult to do that well. Think of the electronics as a kind of blender. It’s easy to think of the instrument as fruit in a blender, you can choose how to chop it up; the blender will do the same thing whether it’s a shoe or a piece of fruit, it follows the program. (The shoe breaks the blender!)   In music it’s kind of the same way -- you play your instrument into the mic – it goes into the computer and the computer has a program set up and no matter what you play it’s programmed to take in that sound (like a whole apple and a blender) -- it might make a delay, an echo, or reverb but it’s going to do the same thing no matter what you play. Personally – musically and aesthetically I don’t like that, because what it feels like to me – it’s like you go to music school, you learn about parallel fifths and you say ”I kind of like the sound of that -- why can’t I use parallel fifths”? What you learn is, it’s not the sound of the fifths that’s bad, you learn that if you are trying to write counterpoint, independent lines, that there are all kinds of tricks that you have to observe, observe them to keep those lines independent in your mind. When you have parallel fifths all of sudden your mind tells you those two sounds are harmonically related. One of those lines turns into a color, a harmony to the other line and not an independent line. And so to me when you put an instrument into a pre-prepared electronic, there’s this extra sound, the flute is buzzing or humming. So instead of thinking – great it’s helping to tell the story or advancing the narrative or timbre it’s part of the construction of the piece, it instead makes the whole experience too simple. In order to make an instrument really work well with electronics, the electronics have to know something about the instrument. It has to at least know what the note is, or the context or the timbre, the phrase, or should know something about how you’re playing. For example – are you near the culmination of the phrase? And all this information should be shaping the way the electronics react to the phrase. And if you do that in the right way it all feels natural and like its part of the music.

What I did was that I scored the piece for flute solo and also a really important part for two flutes and piccolo in the orchestra who actually sit up front right behind Carol. And then the flute is lightly amplified with just a little bit of processing, just a little bit of reverb and then electronics that often are made from Carol’s sounds that I recorded at NYU. All of this becomes a kind of pallet that allows specific things to happen musically. Carol might play a little phrase and I might write it out in the score so that it gets ricocheted through the two flutes and piccolo that are right behind her. Or perhaps she plays a melody and one of the notes gets held by one of the other flutes it sneaks in, and breaks up in the electronics and its fun – musically it works really well. I think most people, at the premiere liked it and one of the comments I heard was— “we always heard the flute really well, and all of the harmonies seemed to grow out of the flute and we know that there are electronics but things seemed to be blended really well”, which is what I wanted – people seemed to be concentrating on the flute, but I didn’t want anyone to be thinking, “where did that sound come from”?

The piece is in three movements, the first movement starts out with a simple flute alone melody. Carol had the idea to start off stage. She starts playing about a minute of melody and walks to her position on stage and the other flutes and electronics start and then the rest of the orchestra comes. Whenever I meditate – I think I’m thinking about one thing and my mind gives me something else but then I get to the solution that I want -- the first movement works like that. The flute is refracted through the orchestra. The middle section is called the flute dream. This is the first piece I’ve written where the flute has the most prominent role and I started dreaming about the flute all kinds of flutes, and this movement is my version of the dream. Carol had this idea that we should turn off all the lights and she could play the opening solo in the dark -- you don’t know where the sounds are coming from. The rest of the flutes enter and some of the electronics, it’s very gentle, mostly in G -- a resonant texture -- flutes surrounded by the orchestra. In the 3rd movement- the melody takes off after the dream. The climax of the piece the flute plays D octaves with the orchestra bringing it to a close with G7 chord.

Barbara: You wrote it in a way that other flutists can perform it?

Tod:  I wrote it so that other flutists and orchestras (after Carol plays it for awhile) can perform it. The flute part is demanding but I don’t think that it’s something that another accomplished player can’t play. The electronics are simple for an orchestra --they just need a keyboard. The orchestra is not amplified so you don’t need microphones for the orchestra.

Barbara: The Flute View is an online magazine devoted to helping flutists think about unique ways to be musicians in the 21st century. Can you tell us about some of your new projects?

Tod: One of the things I’m most excited about is that I’m composer in residence at the Lucerne Festival next summer. (2015) The festival has incredibly high musical standards; there’s a post graduate program for young musicians and a strong commitment to new music. They invited me to help bring new music to new audiences and out of the cloister.

In the last few years I’ve been creating portraits of a city and inviting the people of the city to collaborate with me to create a symphony. In Lucerne I’ll be bringing together all different musicians, classical, street musicians, yodelers -- to collaborate on a new piece that will include sounds that represent the city as well as involving the residents of Lucerne in the collaboration. Learn more here.

In another project I’m trying to reinvent what the hyper instruments are to the next generation- can we make them available on your iphone for example. I care that my music can really touch people who aren’t experts. The concert with Carol and the Bemidji Symphony was really moving. It turned out to be the start of duck hunting season and some members of the audience came in their duck hunting clothing!! People stayed after the performance and I feel we made a great connection!!

Barbara: Thank you so much for speaking with The Flute View!

To hear the concerto:

To learn more about Tod Machover:


---Barbara Siesel, December 30, 2014

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