Interview with Julia Alford-Fowler

Sixth round with the project Listen to America. This time we interview Julia Alford-Fowler: composer, teacher, activist and accordion noodler, Julia tells us about musical influences and her way of composing music.

1. The first listening to your music brings to mind the European (post) avant-garde. What aspects of European music of the ‘900 influenced more your music? Vice versa, which influence on your work comes from the American tradition?

Julia Alford-Fowler

photo © George Silvani

Let me answer this in a slightly different way, I think it will still be what you’re looking for. My overall goal when writing a new piece of music is to create a mood or effect, rather than draw on a specific composer. This isn’t to say that there aren’t those who have influenced me. My technique is largely based in serialism and I draw a lot of inspiration from the work of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I love the artistry that is required to take something so mathematical and calculated and turn it into something beautiful, and more over, to create a melody that leaps, jumps and scoops, while still connecting to the listener. Take for example, my String Quartet No. 2. The first movement was my first serious exploration of serialist techniques and I found it incredibly freeing to be able to construct a piece of music away from a piano while exercising the analytical side of my brain. This kind of writing leaves so much room for textures to be explored, which is perfect for the string quartet. I love that you can write a single pitch for a string instrument and, depending on the articulation and gestures attached to it, have it sound so many different ways, and when combining those textures in layers between four different instruments there are so many possibilities to be created. At the same time, I would never want to create a work that is solely based in gestures, and I place a tremendous amount of importance in creating a moment or series of moments that will remain with a listener after they leave the performance. Much of my use of serialism is with the intention of a means to an end—a way of freeing me from my own distractions when writing at the keyboard. My primary objective is to always challenge a listener while keeping them engaged.

I think I would say that in a way, my influences are all in moderation. I take the techniques of serialism, combine them with the raw emotion of the expressionists (Strauss’ Elektra and Berg’s Wozzeck are both largely influential), the floating chords of Debussy and Ravel, the rhythmic obsession of Stravinsky, the textures of Bartók, the melodic structures of the Eastern European composers (my youthful obsession with Shostakovich is always lingering, as well as Gubaidulina and Schnittke, among others), and an American sensibility. From the American composers, I think I take a certain philosophy rather than a direct musical style. I admire Ives’ brash disregard for any construct and, on the opposite end, Copland’s desire for his music to connect with the people and to be accessible. While these two composers may on the surface seem irreconcilable, I think they both reflect in their own way what it is to be an American composer—to live and create in a country that is both a melting pot of ideas and people, while being, at times, ridiculously idealistic.

All of this being said, when I start a new piece, I almost put blinders on. I want what I have to say to be as much of my own work as it can be. My most recent composition is a concerto for accordion and klezmorim concertino (yet to be performed) that is based in klezmer music. When I was writing this, I listened to a lot of klezmer so that I could capture the style, and a lot of Baroque concerti so I could get a feel for how a concerto might function, but when it came to other composers that use klezmer music—I only listened to one short piece by Samuel Adler for solo clarinet.

2. In your music the chamber music play an important role. Can you tell me which pieces are most important to your artistic work?

First, I mainly write chamber music because it is what I know I can get performed. I tend to write music that I want to hear and that will have a life, so to constantly be writing large scale orchestral works and operas seems counterproductive to me. What I think does appeal to me about chamber music is the degree to which you can push the musicians. For a string quartet you can compose vastly different lines for each of them and they can keep it together. When writing for an orchestra, it is much more difficult, both in terms of complexities and audience. I don’t know if I would qualify these pieces as “most important,” but the pieces that I hold most dear to me and that float in and out of my writing, besides those mentioned above, are the Bartók string quartets and Schnittke piano quintet, any and all Bach fugues and the Cello Suite, Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Reich’s Different Trains, Gubaidulina’s Sieben Worte, Ives’ Concord Sonata, and Copland’s Piano Variations. A disclaimer on this list—it is very much incomplete and depending on when you ask me, it might grow or shrink.

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

Beyond the obvious necessity of incredible skill, I think sensitivity to a composers intentions as well as courage to not be bound by what is/is not on the page. The best performances I have had have been by performers that can sense the aesthetic behind my music and then make it their own. This is a really special and rare talent, and it is always wonderful when someone is able to add his or her own voice to my work and still keep the essence of it in tact. Beyond that, I really value boldness in a performer. My music has a lot of raw energy contained in it and it takes someone with some serious guts to make it sound as crazy and uninhibited as I would like it to come across.

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

Honestly, I am so much more comfortable at a punk or rock show than at a formal concert, so I tend to avoid them. I think that the scene as a whole is interesting from a sociological viewpoint, in that it seems to me that the people who are successful are not necessarily the best composers. Success in our society (in the United States, at least) tends to be based on who is the best at making connections, the best looking product, and over all selling themselves in the best possible light. It leaves me wondering what amazing composers will never be heard because they are not good at playing the game. (This is not meant to be a self-referential statement. I am plenty good at getting myself out there when I want to or need to. It is more of a curiosity of the general state of music overall). What I am interested in right now, since I have been actively researching klezmer music, is the current scene of young musicians that are taking the style in new and different directions—balancing klezmer, rock, jazz, and art music. This music has always been rooted both in tradition and combination of external influences, and it will be really interesting to see where they take it in the coming years.

Musical excerpts on the web site: http://juliaalfordfowler.com

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