Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Linda Catlin Smith

by 5:4

This evening’s Prom concert, given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov, opens with the world première of a new work, Nuages, by US composer Linda Catlin Smith. In preparation for that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, plus the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Linda for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

I think of my music as being driven by harmony, melody and timbre. I want to create music that is intimate and reflective. I’ve always loved the slow movements of classical repertoire; slow music allows greater complexity in terms of harmony, at least to my ear. I think of slower music as a way of steeping oneself in thought.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

Early on, I loved playing the piano, but I preferred making up things to practising. As a child, I was allowed to listen to one side of a record (LP!) before I went to sleep, and my parents had a varied collection of recordings, including Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, and early jazz like Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday and Bix Beiderbeck. Then, as now, when I like something, I listen to it hundreds of times.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

My high school music teacher, composer Allen Shawn, introduced me to all kinds of 20th century music. I continued my studies at university, first at SUNY Stony Brook in NY, and then the University of Victoria in Canada. There, teachers Rudolf Komorous and visiting Japanese composer Jo Kondo introduced me to music and art and literature that resonated with me – Satie’s opera Socrate, for instance, or the traditional court music of Japan (Gagaku). The record collection at the University of Victoria was very good, and I could take out six records per day, so I was exploring a lot of music. That was where I first heard John Cage’s music from the late 1940s, as well as two recordings of Feldman’s music. I listened to these countless times. I am also deeply attracted to visual art, especially painting, which has been very influential on my thinking: the atmosphere of still life paintings by Chardin or Morandi, the layering of J. M. W. Turner’s paintings, the quietude of Agnes Martin. I’m lucky to have had close friendships with living painters; I’ve learned a lot from them.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

I start with some kind of instrumental image. It can be a very small thing, a fragment, or a harmony or instrumental colour (in Nuages I started with an image of overlapping harmonies)… and then it’s like I’ve found a tiny thread, and I follow that. It’s a process that I think of as a kind of speculation – questioning and wondering – a kind of ruthless reflection. I consider my ‘method’ to be one of listening, continuously varying the music, remembering it (or maybe mis-remembering it) in different ways.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

Nuages was a commission from the BBC Proms especially for this concert. It came just when I had been writing a lot of chamber and solo pieces, including a 30-minute string trio, so it was a gift to have the chance to write for orchestra. Having so many instruments gave me a chance to go deeper with the idea of layering harmony; to explore instrumental combinations, like mixing different shades of paint; to see how thick or thin the material can be – exploring different textures of sound. Writing for orchestra is a very special world.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

There are some excellent recordings of my music recently released on the British label Another Timbre.

7. What’s next?

I am currently composing a 30-minute piano quartet for Toronto’s Thin Edge Collective. I’m always curious to see what will happen, especially in a longer work.

Nuages – programme note

It is an honour for me to have been asked to compose a new work for this concert, and to have the chance to work once again with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Recently, I have been interested in a multilayered approach to composing. I love the subtleties and gradations of the undertones in painting, for instance, where different colours are superimposed, generating an overall hue or atmosphere. The title Nuages (clouds) refers to the orchestral images that were in my mind during the creation of the piece: the veiled haze of strings, tangled thicket of woodwinds, or soft fog of percussion. I was interested in a quiet lushness, as in the weaving of light and shade in an overgrown garden; occasionally the work completely thins out, like a clearing in the surroundings, a pause in thought. Above all, I felt I was working with clouds of harmony, through which an occasional melody sometimes appears.

—Linda Catlin Smith

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