By Patrick Marschke
We asked Liquid Music veteran Timo Andres a few questions in preparation for upcoming his visit to the Twin Cities for the world premiere of his SPCO commissioned work "The Blind Banister" for Jonathan Biss's Beethoven/5 project. Catch the show(s) November 27-29 at the Ordway Concert hall in downtown Saint Paul.
How did you get from performing Work Songs on Liquid Music’s 13.14 season to composing The Blind Banister for the SPCO for the premiere this November?
There wasn't a direct connection, though I suppose it didn't hurt to be a bit of a known quantity to the SPCO. It had to do more with this giant commissioning project which Jonathan [Biss] is undertaking, five composers writing him concertos to go along with each Beethoven. After conversations with Jonathan and his project manager James the SPCO signed on to be a lead commissioner of the piece. I'm thrilled, of course, to be writing for such an august and virtuosic group of musicians, and also to be back in St. Paul. Our Work Songs shows at Liquid Music in 2013 were one of the highlights of my musical life thus far.
How long have you been working on The Blind Banister?
It was this summer's big project, so it took about three months, a quicker turnaround than I might've liked for such a large piece. To accommodate this I wrote the entire thing in short-score for two pianos, then orchestrated it afterwards, so Jonathan could start learning the music sooner. Normally I write straight to the orchestral score.
You have talked about ‘responding to’ and ‘paraphrasing’ other composer’s music previously and said of The Blind Banister, “I started writing my own cadenza to Beethoven’s concerto, and ended up devouring it from the inside out”—how was (or wasn’t) this project different than other ‘musical responses’?
Certainly all of my music, and to some degree all music, responds to music which came before it. My ears are constantly seeking connections between things—a bit Mahler may have picked from Brahms, for example, will stand out to me in stark relief. I've always admired composers with a magpie aesthetic—Ives, Stravinsky, John Adams, Ingram Marshall—and I think my own music naturally fell into that way of operating at some point during college.
In some of my music these references and samples are hidden, and only I know about them. In other pieces, like the Mozart Recomposition, they are decidedly not. The Blind Banister falls into the first category—you wouldn't hear it and think "Beethoven". But I used some Beethoven-ish building materials, things out of the second concerto, things from his later style, which overlap or sit well with my own compositional tendencies. It's not about feeling tension with Beethoven, certainly, and it's not anything like a collage.
What does an ideal day of composing look like for you? Do you have specific habits around the act of composing?
One of the things I love about my job is that I can work from home. I love being at home, and gradually working to make the most copacetic home that I can. I find it difficult to compose on the road (though I sometimes have to) and I never do artists' colonies or residencies.
Now that I'm 30 I've finally realized that getting up early can be pretty wonderful. My partner is a doctor and I wake up with her most mornings, so I can generally set to work around 8 or 8:30. Strong coffee is a constant and I take frequent breaks. There's a great piece of software called SelfControl, which irrevocably blocks access to certain websites for a set amount of time—that's switched on if Twitter or something becomes too alluring.
The best way I've found to solve a musical problem, or get over a stumbling point, is to get the music in question stuck in my head (by playing it over and over) and then go take a walk or have a bike ride about it. I can whistle or hum whatever I'm working on and my legs give it a nice pulse, and the change of scenery helps clear the head.
Cooking is another way to break the day up. I'll almost always make something for lunch and also be tending some longer process over the course of the day.
In the afternoon I'm usually pretty spent on writing, so it's piano practice time, or tending to clerical chores like mailing scores, updated the website, or doing email. Email is really the worst—it can take over an entire day if I'm not very firm with it.
I don't actually have a huge amount of time for listening to other music, which is an ongoing problem, and something that I'd like to work on.
If you could come up with a name for New Music besides “New Music” what would it be?
How do you balance being a performer and a composer? Do you think this dual role is becoming more typical, as it was pre-20th century composer/performer schism?
My theory is that as music became so hyper-specialized in the mid-20th century—almost a scientific discipline—it didn't leave any room or time for composers to spend learning to play it. That role had to be delegated almost entirely to another group of specialists, New Music performers. It was all just so difficult that it demanded 100% of a musician's time and attention. We still have performers who specialize in contemporary music, or course, and the level of virtuosity is higher than it's ever been. But also the music being written now acknowledges and benefits from human performers more, from our strengths and our foibles. It feels like things have mostly returned to how they used to be, pre-Modernism.
How would you introduce classical music to someone that is completely unfamiliar with the genre?
I wish I could take them all to a concert I went to a couple of weeks ago—the LA Phil and Dudamel playing the Rite of Spring at Disney Hall. It was really quite thrilling.
I once saw you perform a show of alternating Glass and Schubert pieces: who/what do you think someone might pair your music with in a similar format?
There are many pairings I could imagine working well. I've played my own music with Schumann a whole bunch, as well as Ives. The singer/composer Gabriel Kahane and I do a show which interweaves our own music with Ives, Britten, Bach, Adès, Andrew Norman, and lots of other little things. I think the iTunes shuffle feature opened a lot of people's minds to different juxtapositions of music 10 or 15 years ago, and programming is slowly getting more interesting as a result. Not all the experiments work, but that's why they're experiments.
What advice would you give your 20 year old self?
To not fear collaboration—it can be extra work, but it can also be wonderfully freeing.
What book have you reread and/or gifted most?
I'm not a re-reader, mainly because I am a very slow reader, constantly overwhelmed by the number of books I haven't read yet. Though I've been reading a lot of poetry recently, and enjoying the necessity of re-reading it—new collections by Andrea Cohen and Kay Ryan, and of course always Tomas Tranströmer.
What is your favorite noise?Most cooking-related noises, the sound of a well-tuned bicycle, the general clatter of a family existing in a house.
What is your favorite thing on the internet?
Am I allowed to say Twitter? I love Twitter, and it makes me sad that the people running it don't really seem to love it and are constantly mucking with it.
Ideally, more of the same, but better?
Where can people find you on the internet?
My website, andres.com, is where I keep a concert schedule, an archive of all the music I've written, and a very occasional blog. Twitter or Instagram are more of-the-moment, both @timoandres.
Lastly and shamelessly, why should readers go to Liquid Music shows?
I like to think of Liquid Music as a laboratory—it's where you go to really have your ears bent. The name of the series is actually perfect. Music is not some monumental, immutable solid—it takes the form of the container it's in. The artists Kate Nordstrum brings in know this, and are creating delightful and necessary estuaries. It's the perfect complement and supplement to a great orchestra, which can't always afford to be as experimental.