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On Composing Paso del Fuego

Dear Dr. Furman,


I am the program annotator and publication manager in Ashland, Oregon, where the Cypress String Quartet will play your Paso del fuego this coming November.  This is an arts-oriented community and we are blessed with a very curious audience.  They love to know about working composers from the composers' own point of view.  


I would appreciate it so much if you would share some of your thoughts with them – 


The origin of Paso del fuego,

It was commissioned by the San José Chamber Orchestra in collaboration with the Cypress Quartet.  That orchestra is composed mainly of strings, so the instrumentation was set almost from the start. 


how your ideas develop, 

Writing for string quartet and string orchestra poses significant challenges. I like compositional challenges so after considering various approaches, I began working exclusively with pitch material (motives and harmony) derived from the names of the Cypress quartet members, Cecily, Tom, Ethan and Jennifer. Using an old compositional technique called soggetto cavato (carved subject or theme) with the aid of a musical cipher (alphabet to note names), each of the four themes was extrapolated and developed into melodic and harmonic material, freely used to generate the five movements of the piece. While composing I would often think of the “cello theme” or the “viola harmony,” and so on. 


Performers themselves serve as inspiration to a composer. With the Cypress Quartet in mind, the compositional process took on a personal nature as I imagined the individual players performing every gesture and passage being written. It was like having a virtual Cypress Quartet at hand. The experience led to specifically tailored music infusing the character of each passage with their personalities. Sharing the sketches with my wife, we would exclaim, “That’s Cecily,” or Ethan, Tom or Jennifer, rather than “that’s the viola” or cello, and so on. 


what you think the music expresses, 

The idea of cross-cultural amalgamation is familiar to me. I have always felt the tug of South American and Eastern European traditions at different times and in different ways. Both cultures possess a love of the land and characteristic burning passion. The idea of crossing over from one cultural aesthetic to the other provided the metaphor of a mountain pass (well understood in the Andean region), and in this specific case, a passage between two heritages of intense vitality. 


your writing process, 

As mentioned above, I started with motives and harmony derived from the performers’ names. The challenge of using string quartet against a string orchestra placed strict limitations. However, the limitations led to ideas of contrast and varied instrumental color. String instruments can do many things other than be played with the typical techniques, so I sketched music with this in mind.


how the movements fit together, 

They are contrasting in character and operate under a modified concerto grosso principle where the roles of concertante (soloists) group and ripieno or tutti are frequently exchanged between quartet and orchestra.


The piece starts with a forceful and rhapsodic movement based on pitch material from the violins and the viola themes. This is followed by a melancholy second movement featuring solos by the cello and viola on the theme derived from the cellist’s name, Jennifer. The third and central movement is a shift in mood - a whimsical and mysterious dance-like scherzo based on the violin themes. The fourth movement is the brightest and most lyrical and showcases the two violins in an extended, double melody. It is in four sections, each based on one of the four themes, accompanied by glistening orchestra textures. The final movement, in a rondo-like structure, is a virtuosic display of the four soloists. Towards the end, a long melody is presented, made of all four themes strung together. This drives the piece to a fiery and high-spirited conclusion.



what is the role of dissonance in your writing, 

To me dissonance and consonance are in a continuum. I view and hear them as color such as “bright” and “dark,” or “warm” and “cold,” with hues in between.  When I teach, I talk about harmonic color, so some harmonies are brighter or darker than others, not dissonant or consonant. In fact, two sounds a quarter-tone apart may sound “warm” to me, not dissonant, depending on the context and tone quality. The French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel introduced the idea of harmonic color, so this is nothing new. 


why you compose in the first place

From an early age I felt the desire to “make” music, not just play it. I still feel the same way.


Also, I see that you are a long-time pioneer in electronic "new" music.  It would be interesting to know where you think music is going, 

I’m not really a pioneer - there have been many before me clearing the path of technology in music but I have been using the medium for a long time. As far as the future of music, I have no idea, except to say that the trend of plurality of aesthetics and styles will continue together with the increasing role of technology. One thing I do know is that new music is being supported less and less by official subsidies, if at all (Grants for new music by the National Foundation for the Arts, for example, have been drastically reduced since I last served in their review panels. The California Arts Council award, which I was a recipient of, was eliminated years ago due to budget cuts). Therefore, the role of organizations like organizations like yours is immensely important to the fostering and dissemination of new music. It cannot be overestimated how important this role is and how important the creation of all kinds of new art is to society.


what new and old forms can say to each other, 

New music is created on the foundation of the old. We cannot ignore the history of our art form.


what might be your favorite new soundscape, 

If by soundscape we mean a ‘man’-made sound environment, I like exploring new instrumental colors, even those produced by traditional instruments including the voice, environmental sources and every day objects. All of these can be transformed into music.


how you visualize concerts in the future (or whether we will have them), and etc.  

There will be concerts, always, especially of live human players even if intelligent robotic players are created. Watching a machine or computer play music loses its appeal rather quickly. What will change is the delivery, in real time, on-site and off. There is a nascent drive to include technology in concerts of symphonic music and opera in order to enhance the listening experience (again, nothing new – French opera was once famously characterized by the visual aspects of the show). What is new is the use of surround sound in concert halls in order to give listeners an experience similar to the way in which they usually listen to music. People, especially younger ones, listen to music with headphones (music inside the head experience) and watch movies in cinemas and home theaters with surround systems (immersion experience). Symphony halls and orchestras are experimenting with this as wells as with the added visual media in an attempt to compete with popular music events and movie theaters. We will see more of this with new music, not necessarily for every piece of music, especially traditional ones (at least for a while).


A second trend will be to bring concerts to mobile devices, in real time – “every where’s a concert” concept with total immersion methods (imagine google glass concerts with surround earphones). Not particularly appealing to audiences of today but realizing the significance of mobile devices (and whatever will replace them in the future), there will be a push to reach a growing population that does not go to the concert hall. Currently there are live opera multicasts (N.Y. Met) and symphony concerts (San Francsico Symphony) through multicasts in HD or high definition. These still require going to the local movie theater but it is a very familiar thing to most people. This differs from watching the events on T.V. because of HD surround sound and the large screen (some singers at the Met don’t enjoy being captured on camera this way because of the very close up approach). The trend to single-user delivery will remain an idea until a measurable success rate is achieved, but it is not too far off in the future.


And I almost forgot, what is the correct translation of Paso del fuego?

The fire’s passage.