Shades of Memory: interview with Pierre Jalbert

Focusing primarily on instrumental works, Pierre Jalbert has developed a musical language that is engaging, expressive, and deeply personal. He is Professor of Composition and Theory at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, where he has taught since 1996, and he serves as one of the artistic directors of Musiqa, a Houston-based contemporary chamber ensemble.

1. The first listening to your music brings to mind a very classic style. What aspects of European music of the 1900 influenced more your music? And which influence on your work comes from the American tradition?

Pierre JalbertI’d say my music was very influenced by the music I grew up with: classical (from Bach to modern music), jazz and popular music (as a pianist, I played jazz and popular styles, but my main interest was in classical music, and I was trained as a classical pianist). On the classical side, I was a huge fan of Mahler and Crumb, and on the popular side, I was a huge Beatles fan. From the American tradition, Copland and Bernstein were big influences in my youth, especially in terms of rhythm. At the time, Copland was the only American composer I knew of that was actually making a living by composing concert music, and I played much of his music in youth orchestras (I was also a percussionist, so that influenced my treatment of rhythm/pulse) and on the piano. I’d say my biggest influences after that were composers such as Debussy, Messiaen, and one of my teachers in graduate school – George Crumb.

2. The catalog of your works is just very rich…A significant portion is occupied by the symphonic music. You can tell me which pieces are most important to your artistic work?

I was lucky enough to work with some fine orchestras through some residencies. I wrote works for the American Composers Orchestra, the New York Youth Symphony, and later on became composer in residence with the California Symphony conducted by Barry Jekowsky (a 3-year term). After that I served as composer in residence with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Kahane (again for 3 years). I also wrote multiple works for the Albany Symphony and the Houston Symphony (Houston is where I now reside, and I teach at Rice University). Probably my most important orchestral works are In Aeternam, Chamber Symphony, Fire and Ice, and Shades of Memory.

3. The relationship between the composer and the interpreter is not easy. What should be the qualities of a good performer?

I think a good interpreter of new music is one that has a lot of experience in playing new and brand new works, as well as traditional repertoire. It’s great if they have the technique to play just about anything, and are eager to form lasting relationships with living composers. It’s only due to performers and conductors like these that we have a repertoire and that composers have the opportunity to introduce new works.

4. There is an instrument that you feel closer to your way of thinking about music, or the timbral research is always the result of a complex relationship between different instruments?

The piano has always been my main instrument, though I did play some percussion in my youth as well. Although when writing orchestral music, I have to separate myself from the piano for a time so I don’t end up writing something too pianistic, and I really think for the instruments at hand.

5. What do you think about the contemporary music scene? There are musical movements or composers that you follow with interest?

I think we live in a fairly healthy time. There are many styles around and I’m a music fan – I like to see and hear what’s going on. I do think we live in a more “populist” time where it seems the accessible and more crowd pleasing music is drowning out the more difficult stuff. But the pendulum always swings back so we’ll see.

Musical excerpts on the web site: www.pierrejalbert.com

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