Good morning, campers! It is finally nice and warm outside, which is significantly improving my outlook on life and subsequently allowing me to forgive you for letting Hindemith best Vaughan Williams even though the latter was holding a cat and therefore clearly should have won. Sheesh. I can’t believe you guys didn’t pick up on that. But ah well; let bygones be bygones. Let’s try this again, shall we?
Maybe you thought the last match was pretty darn modern. Well, b-b-b-baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet, because in this corner, clap your hands! It’s
And in this corner, SHHHHHH. It’s
Let’s see. John Cage is a legend of weirdness, with his moments of silence and his crazy dance scores and his chance music. Then you’ve got Steve Reich, was his minimalism and his clapping and his pendulums and my God is there a lot of innovation of up in this match!
And so, Ain’t Baroccos, I ask you: of these two composers who were/are alive in your lifetime, who do you love?
A few weeks ago, composer Matt Siffert made the grave tactical error of emailing me and offering me a streaming link to his album, Cold Songs. Naturally I took his email hostage and refused to return it until he granted me an interview. Read on to learn more about inspiration, orchestration, and the emotional impact of the creative process. Oh, and to hear a little of the album yourself. Allons-y!
Jenn German: The first question is VERY IMPORTANT, so I want you to consider it carefully. The fate of this entire interview and all the people on it rests in your hands. Beethoven or Mozart?
Matt Siffert: Beethoven, no question.
JG: We shall do well here.
MS: Whew… that was a close one…
JG: Okay, Matt Siffert’s Musical Pedigree. What’s your background? Go!
MS: I went to college at Carnegie Mellon, where I studied music and psychology. The music portion of my studies were mostly jazz, with a bit of classical theory/performance practice.
I also did a fair share of music history. I studied abroad in Havana, Cuba, which was where I developed an interest in songwriting. Upon returning to CMU in my senior year, I recorded an album of songs I wrote and arranged for a singer and jazz musicians.
JG: Nice! I took an Latin American ethnomusicology course in undergrad, but we didn’t spend a ton of time on Cuban music. Highly influential?
MS: Yeah, Havana was very, very influential. They had a perfect balance of melodically-driven songs with sensitive musicianship accompaniment.
So it was there that I realized I can put the worlds of songwriting and sophisticated musical technique together. As I got more interested in arranging, I became drawn to the sound of classical instruments. And that’s when I started studying composition; first on my own, then in the evening division at Julliard, which is where I’ve been for the last two years.
JG: Would you say you’re working on a sort of Cuban fusion music, or are you more influenced by the idea of melody and sensitivity as opposed to literal Cuban rhythms and motifs?
MS: Definitely the latter. I’m not as interested in the actual Cuban rhythmic sensibilities as I am the idea of melody paired with musical sensitivity.
JG: How would you describe your niche?
MS: I strive to combine folk-influenced songwriting with musical sensibilities from the jazz and classical worlds.
JG: What instruments do you play?
MS: My primary instrument is bass, but I play a bit of guitar and piano. And I sing.
JG: Do you compose around these instruments?
MS: Yeah. Usually the seed of a song comes when I’m in random places, like the train, shower, or in bed, but when I build them out and really sculpt them I usually work on guitar or piano.
JG: Do you later re-orchestrate them, or stick to the original arrangement?
MS: Yeah, I then re-orchestrate them. Sometimes I write the whole song and then orchestrate; sometimes I want the orchestration to be more integrated into the lyric and form, and will start orchestrating while I develop the song itself. It just depends on what that initial seed calls for.
On [my album] Cold Songs, for example, I wrote every song except “Show-Off” first. With that one, I really wanted it to be about combining the virtuosity of the quartet with the melodic line I wrote. So there was more of a back and forth when I composed that one.
JG: What’s your concept behind Cold Songs?
MS: I started writing songs for the project right after a convergence of three crummy events; health problems, job problems, and relationship problems. But funnily enough I was still working through those problems in my head, and wasn’t ready to write songs about them. So I took themes that I have previously written about – new-found love, nature, ego, growing up – and fed them through this dark wavelength I was living on.
After writing the songs on guitar, I felt like the accompaniment wasn’t bringing the stories and characters to life in the way I wanted. I had been listening to lots of string quartet music, as well as pop music that utilized strings, and thought that this austere sound world was a perfect match for my songs. So I devoured the music of Ligeti, Schoenberg, Britten, Dvorak, and others, and arranged the songs for a string quartet.
JG: How did you find the chamber orchestration transformed the work?
MS: It allowed the emotional states of the characters to come through on a non-verbal level. On songs where the narrator is angry, the strings get gritty and brutal. In songs where the narrator is flashy, the strings are virtuosic, etc., etc. These musical backdrops support the narrator in a way that adds depth and life that you just can’t get with a voice and guitar.
JG: It seems like the music on this album came from an emotionally dark place, but as in so many cases it brought about some catharsis. Would you say the listener should find it ultimately uplifting, or is it a soundtrack to help through rough times?
MS: Great question, and funny, I was just talking about this with a friend last night…
I don’t really feel like this should be either uplifting or depressing. I felt my work as almost journalistic, in some respects. I more just want people to see this darker world and feel okay living in it for a little while. People tend to smell sadness and run away from it, often at great expense. They often ignore the confrontation of problems stuff away their problems, which always come back at some point. So my hope was that I invite the listener into this dark world and show them the insides of it; that it’s really not a horrible place. You just need adjust to it, work your way through it, and move on.
JG: As the original thinker of dark thoughts and writer of dark notes, how you feel when you hear your work?
Matt: Another great question… When I listen back to Cold Songs, I am drawn mostly to the steps I made in terms of songwriting and compositional craft. With these songs I really started to find my own voice as a lyricist, and made genuine strides in pairing my songs with the appropriate musical accompaniment.
JG: Now that you’ve found your voice, where do you expect to take it next?
MS: I’m actually about halfway through my next project, which is a group of songs I’m writing for myself (voice) and harp! I’m continuing the idea of pushing myself as a songwriter, and striving for the most appropriate musical accompaniment for the songs I’m writing.
JG: Any performances coming up? I assume you continue to post your appearances on your website, which you sent me. Would you by chance want to offer a streaming track?
MS: I do indeed post the appearances. And sure! I’d be happy to offer a streaming track!
JG: Beautiful. And the full album can be purchased on your website? iTunes?
MS: Yeah, it’s up on iTunes here.
JG: Sounds good. Anything you wanted to add?
MS: I think that’s it! Thank you so much for doing this, it was a blast!
JG: Pleasure’s all mine!
Thank you, Matt! Be sure to check out his website, mattsiffert.com.
It’s baaaaaaack! Yes, my friends, it’s time for another round of Composer Cagematch!, that spectacular series of cutthroat fights between composers that asks not the question, who is a better composer? but rather, who do you LOVE?
That’s right – throw out all your notions of musicology based merit and vote based on your heart, because the winner is not musicology’s champion – he is the people’s champion!
So where are we starting on this spectacular journey? Well, we were going to start with Schubert, but I still haven’t figured out who’s strong enough to take on Schubert, and I really don’t want to repeat composers, so… we’re starting with two of history’s most successful film composers, folks! And as such -
In this corner, entering the ring with in an imperial march, it’s
And in this corner, he brings honor to us all! It’s
Hey, I know I complain about Williams a lot, but I’ve always liked his Jurassic Park score, and then yesterday I watched Memoirs of a Geisha and found the theme beautiful and looked up the composer and said “Oh.” So you can vote for him; I won’t judge. And Jerry Goldsmith? The Voyager theme? Mulan? The Omen? The Mummy? I mean, this is hard.
But you still have to make your choice.
If you’d like your concert included in next week’s roundup, leave a comment or drop me a line.
Hey, you guys ever notice the “like this post” button at the bottom of my updates? Well, believe it or not, occasionally people click on it! And the other day I received just such an approval from an intriguing young man and fellow blogger named Derek Kortepeter who, in his profile, claimed to be an ethnomusicologist. I perked right up at that and immediately pounced, demanding an interview which he graciously consented to give. Read on as we attempt to answer the question, “What do you even DO with ethnomusicology?”
JENN GERMAN: So, first question – and please answer honestly, because this is VERY IMPORTANT. Beethoven or Mozart?
DEREK KORTEPETER: Beethoven, as a composer his melodies have impacted me greatly.
JG: That is the correct answer, Mr. Kortepeter. We shall do well here.
JG: Now, when I first proposed this interview, I mentioned something about my friend who is studying musicology at Peabody, and how all the performance majors blink at her and say, “What do you even DO?” Funny story – I posted to the AB Facebook page with “What would you ask an ethnomusicologist?” and the very first response I received was “What the heck do you do with that degree?”
DK: Haha, you know, you can do A LOT with it. At my school at the undergraduate level, you can choose either a research emphasis (leading in later years to fieldwork where you interact with various cultures and record their music and eventually publish your findings), a performance emphasis (many individuals who have studied at UCLA or teach at UCLA have very prolific performance careers), or composition (many professors have double or triple careers, not only being scholars professionally but also respected composer).
Ethnomusicology is a very unique field, some institutions classify it in the anthropology sections, whereas others put it in a more musical context. Much can be done with it; for instance, my old professor and mentor Dr. Wanda Bryant was the ethnomusicology consultant for James Horner when he composed the score for Avatar. She brought in audio samples of all different cultures, namely minority cultures, to help create the unique score for that film. I know of many people who have worked with Grammy winners, Academy Award winning films, etc., it is a very unique and diverse field.
JG: Ah! As much as I didn’t like Avatar (issues with the plot, not the music), I must say that’s a pretty darn nifty application. I bet it could apply to a lot film scores that need to evoke a specific period and/or setting. Now what exactly do YOU do with it?
DK: I am a composer, and as a composer I want to know at the deepest possible level all music that exists in this world. I chose UCLA over schools like UC Berkeley because as a composer, I am allowed to move in and out of various cultures with ease. I tend to be very critical of conservatories who teach only western classical music, as I feel that, especially for composition students, creativity is stifled. Especially in this postmodern 21st Century era, composers are now more than ever required to understand how to properly write music from cultures different than their own. You must write with knowledge, as Hollywood especially has been guilty of creating stereotypical, inaccurate portrayals of global music (such as the overuse of the Hijaz scale when a storyline is based around the Middle East and inaccurate drum beats and melodies for American Indian music, which is a personal issue for me as a man that is part Cherokee Indian).
JG: Is there a particular culture whose musical traditions you find yourself gravitating toward in your music?
DK: Hmmm, good question, I have influences ranging from Philip Glass and Hans Zimmer to the Thievery Corporation, but if we are talking specific cultures I would say three: Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian. There are others, but especially Chinese and Japanese as I find great musical depth in their ideas.
JG: Are those three your favorites, necessarily? For study?
DK: Um, not my only favorites. I love rock music – it is in my blood as a rock guitarist – so that is a huge part of my scholastic life as well (I actually wrote a paper on rock and metal music in the Arab world). I’m also interested in music theory (western and global), sociology of music, music and politics, electronic music etc. Also musical minimalism.
JG: So sort of American ethnomusicology too?
DK: Yeah, the philosophy of my school is that ethnomusicology is the world, so that means EVERY part of the world, not necessarily an East/West distinction which infers an Us vs. Them mentality. Ethnomusicology used to be very eurocentric, but it has come very far since then to be a very relative and open school of thought. Discussion is encouraged.
JG: What sorts of fusion have you encountered? Or has the blend not come so far yet?
DK: That’s a complex question because it depends on the situation you refer to. You see East meeting West in various compositions of students in the division, as well as a very diverse curriculum that looks to really stretch the music perspective of the student. The ensembles at the school are very purist, but that is only because they desire to teach the correct method of playing. Looking on a global scale there have been strides in East/West music. Philip Glass wrote the score to Martin Scorcese’s Kundun with a western orchestra, Tibetan gongs and horns, and an overall theoretical perspective that draws on Tibetan musical (namely from Tibetan Buddhist rituals). Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project consists of all different instruments, from the Pipa of China to the Santur of Persian culture. There are signs of cultural fusion everywhere, but as I’ve spoken about it on my blog, I believe music education has a long way to go before true cultural inclusion is complete.
JG: Is the curiosity about the “other” side mutual? Are there Tibetans holding their gongs while peering at Western scores and scratching their heads?
DK: I think so; in various cultures there has been integration of western styles. In Japan there is a group called Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra that is just what the name implies, it is a Japanese Ska band. You see in Indonesia the punk rock band Lolot, you see in Iraq (now in New York City) the metal band Acrassicauda. There is curiosity from both sides, I think. In the information age and with increased globalization I think this was inevitable.
JG: Here’s a submitted question I found interesting: do you think musical taste can be passed genetically?
DK: Hmmmm, I’m not sure if it is a question of genetics (i.e. chromosome-inherited traits) as opposed to environment. Children are exposed at a very young age to certain types of music, but that can change due to a number of factors, peers, the desire to be counter-cultural, etc. I know that my taste in music can in some ways be traced to my mom. Growing up she was playing the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen etc., so naturally later I am a huge fan of these bands.
JG: Oh, sure, but there are also kids who come to hate the music their parents “force” on them. You think that has anything to do with musical taste, or is it all in the nature to rebel – or not?
DK: Probably both, you know? Maybe the desire to listen to heavy metal as a counter-cultural statement is merely fulfilling a psychological trait of rebellion.
JG: I hear ya. Anything else you’d like to tell the future ethnomusicologists of America?
DK: If you want to do this, people may not understand it. Believe in your career, though – you really do not know what may happen. I truly believe this field is the field of the future, so why not write the future yourself?
JG: Nicely put. And where does one find your ethnomusicology blog?
JG: Good times. Well, thank you very much!
DK: Hey thanks for entertaining my ideas! You are very welcome.
Thanks so much, Derek! I think we single-handedly advanced the field of ethnomusicology tenfold, don’t you? And Ain’t Baroccos, you can look forward to another interview with the intrepid Stephen P. Brown coming soon! Know anyone else you think deserves to come under my steely journalistic gaze? Let me know!
Remember, if you’d like me to include your upcoming concert in next week’s roundup, leave a comment or drop me a line.
Sorta kinda not really but yes exception: Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” Anderson is a composer and American institution, no? So here’s a Disney rendition straight out of my childhood, as each year my brother and I would fight over how early was too early to watch the Christmas Sing-along-songs tape. (My opinion: September = fair game.)
Good morning, collective sunshine! It’s… well, it’s rainy and uniformly gray over here. And it’s supposed to be cold over the weekend, which is why you’ll want to forgo any sort of outdoor activity and stay within the safe confines of the concert hall. Take your pick: