Junkyard Wars in Zankel Hall?
In this exclusive interview for Carnegie Hall, George Manahan—Music Director and Conductor of American Composers Orchestra—speaks to composer Sean Friar about his Clunker Concerto. Part of ACO's Playing it UNsafe initiative, this percussion quartet concerto for junk car parts and orchestra receives its world premiere on March 4 in Zankel Hall.
George Manahan: Tell us about the piece you're writing. How did you get the idea for this piece?
Sean Friar: Clunker Concerto is a percussion quartet concerto for junk car parts and orchestra. The piece begins with a mock car on stage that gradually gets dismantled throughout the first half of the piece, revealing an arsenal of new junk percussion instruments in the process. Much of the fun and interest in the piece involves exploring the different ways in which the orchestra and junk can find common ground with each other, and surprising ways to interact.
The original impetus for this piece was the idea of the spectacle of having this whole "car-like" object on stage and having it slowly transform from a single object into a large array of unfamiliar instruments that all make very different sounds. And while that theatrical element is still an important part of the piece, as I got into writing it my attention increasingly focused on the peculiar and sometimes beautiful sounds of the junk, and ways in which they could interact with the orchestra in a more than a superficial way.
The way I've used junk percussion in the past—and the way it usually gets used—is precisely as that, junk. That is, it's usually used to merely add extra noise and abrasive grit to what is essentially already there in the music. The details of the instruments—especially their pitch capabilities, their resonance, and their harmonic spectra—are rarely taken into account. I decided early on that I wanted to delve into those lesser-explored aspects of junk, and I ended up spending a lot of time with each instrument figuring out exactly what they could and couldn't do. For instance, I've mapped out all the different pitches one can bow on a hubcap; and I did a spectral analysis of a piece of sheet metal to see which pitches it produced most prominently, and then wrote chords in the orchestra that sync up with that spectrum.
So in this way, I'm treating the junk as seriously and in as much detail as I do all the orchestral instruments.
GM: How did you connect with American Composers Orchestra (ACO) to write this piece?
SF: I had worked with ACO previously when I did their ACO / Penn Presents New Music Reading Session in 2009. Also, one of my professors at Princeton, Dan Trueman, did a piece for laptop orchestra and orchestra for ACO's first UNsafe series back in 2008—having seen that concert, I knew that ACO really wasn't kidding when they said they wanted to try unusual and risky things! So, I submitted a proposal when ACO had their open call last Spring—I thought my idea was fairly neat, but I was almost sure I had no chance of getting it. Fortunately, I wasn't the only person who thought it was a good idea to dismantle a car in Carnegie Hall!
GM: Tell me about how the UNsafe process has been for you this season. How have you used it to create Clunker Concerto?
SF: The way ACO has organized the writing and workshopping process for UNsafe has really been incredible. One of the difficulties composers generally encounter when writing for orchestra—especially if one is doing anything unconventional—is that there is so little rehearsal time that there really is very little opportunity for experimentation or discussion. If a piece has a few hours of rehearsal time, that is quite a lot, and that's really just enough time for the orchestra to get the music as tightly as possible.
I used the first few workshops primarily as testing grounds for unusual orchestrations and strange combinations of junk and traditional instruments. Some of them worked great, some had potential but needed tweaking, and others needed to be left by the wayside. That I was able to spend this much pre-compositional testing out ideas and defining what my sound palette would be for the piece made all the difference. When a composer is trying new things that have little or no precedence, he can't rely on past experience or an orchestration book to tell him what are the fruitful and not-so-fruitful ways to do something—the composer just needs to try it out. By having the three early workshops, a much larger proportion of the "trying out" was able to be done before the concert, rather than during it!
Another very valuable effect of these workshops is that now that I have worked out so many of the initial issues inherent in writing a piece like this, the whole thing can actually flow quite smoothly—the difficulty in doing a piece like Clunker Concerto isn't so much the actual performing of the piece, but rather in the initial work and experimentation early on in the composing process. Now, with that stage done and the biggest unknowns and logistical issues already overcome, another orchestra with a more typical amount of rehearsal time would be able to put it together without much difficulty.
GM: What are some of the challenges you have faced in putting this piece together?
SF: Though I've had a wonderful time working on the piece and have learned a lot in the process, I must admit that it has been a tremendous amount of work. I feel as though I am writing two or three pieces at once! There's the 15 minutes of orchestra music—which to write over the course of a few months is enough work on its own. There's going to junk yards, figuring out how to dismantle cars, finding parts that seem promising, and experimenting with how best to use them as instruments. Then there's thinking about how to combine these two very different things. There's also teaching the percussionists of Line C3 how to play these instruments they've never played before, and tackling the logistics of getting something with the semblance of a car on stage so it can be dismantled. The piece has forced me to develop several new skill sets that have nothing to do with writing music. My apartment looks like I'm running a scrap yard out of it.
GM: Tell me about the feedback you received during the workshops—has it been helpful? Was there any feedback you received that surprised you, or took the work in a new direction?
SF: The feedback sessions have been a big help! First, having Bob Beaser, Derek Bermel, Steve Mackey and Julie Wolfe all behind me listening to my work-in-progress has been extremely valuable. They're all wonderful composers and orchestrators, and all in very different ways—to hear each one's opinions of and suggestions for my music is so useful. Quite a few of their suggestions have been incorporated into the final version of the piece.
Second, many of the orchestral musicians have given me useful feedback, too, albeit about very different issues than composer mentors. For instance, an oboist told me that for the multiphonic I want, there's a better fingering than the one I suggested, which he gave to me. It's a little thing in itself, but lots of those little things add up to something that can make a big difference in how good the piece ultimately sounds, and how easy and fun it is for the performers to play.
GM: What do you think will happen on March 4 at Zankel Hall?
SF: As a whole, I think the concert will be refreshing, inspiring, and a lot of fun. All the pieces on the program genuinely tug at the seams of the conventional notion of the orchestral music, and the four of us that are on the program are all extremely stylistically different. Regardless of what audience members think of the individual pieces, I think many of them will walk out stimulated and reevaluating their thoughts about just how flexible the orchestra is capable of being. And perhaps the musicians in the audience will be encouraged to try out crazy ideas of their own that they've been saving up!
I'm hoping that as people see how some of these "unsafe" ideas aren't actually impossible to pull off, more ensembles and orchestras will take chances on more unusual ideas, and hopefully, on these pieces.