An Interview with Allen Anderson

His works have been recorded by such
leading artists as the Lydian String Quartet, violinist Curtis Macomber, and
pianist Aleck Karis. We spoke at his office in Hill Hall at the University of
North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on May 13, 2008.

TM: What was the musical environment like in your family?
What were your beginnings as a musician?

AA: I have an older sister, who somewhere in our
childhood decided she wanted to play the organ. It wasnít the classical

TM: FarfisaÖ.

AA: It wasnít a Farfisa. That would have been fun! This
was the household chord-organ, where the left hand played full chords, and
the right hand played the tune. That and an autoharp were the only musical
instruments we had in the house, and it must have come when I was about
twelve, perhaps ten or eleven.

I do have a compositional memory that precedes this by some unknown number
of years. I probably was six or seven at the time. The whole family was in
the automobile, I was sitting in the back seat — this was before the days
of seat belts — and I remember distinctly moving forward to perch myself
over the back of the front seat, and proclaiming to my parents that if they
gave me any line of song lyrics, I would be able to sing back the song that
went with these lyrics. ìYou mean a song you already know?î ìNo, just
give me the lyrics, and Iíll sing the song!î

I remember being crushed by their response, because they thought this was
impossible. They didnít give me any lyrics, and I remember returning to the
back seat, and not thinking of myself as a composer for many years.

My first conscious desire to want to be involved in playing an instrument
like many people from my generation, males in particular, was after seeing
the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It must have been within a month after that we
went out and got a guitar. I studied with a man who did jazz guitar, but I
was interested in joining rock and roll bands. He was teaching me rather
advanced music theory while he was trying to make me into essentially someone
who could play background chords — not really a soloist, but someone who
could comp the chords. That was my first exposure to music theory.

TM: Where were you growing up?

AA: In the San Francisco Bay area. I was born in Palo
Alto, and grew up in Los Altos, right there. When all the San Francisco bands
from Haight Ashbury hit, I was a little young, but I knew what their sound
was, and started imitating that in the bands that I played in.

When George Harrison started playing the sitar, I became interested in
Indian music as well, and for two years I studied sitar during the summers in
Berkeley, with a real honest-to-goodness Indian master, sitting on the floor
for four hours every morning, playing scales up and down the sitar. When I
got to college at Berkeley I realized within a month or so that I would have
to give up the guitar, because in those days the electric guitar was not an
acceptable instrument — nobody paid attention to it in that environment.
And there was no place for sitar, so I decided that I needed to learn how to
play the piano.

TM: What year was this?

AA: I started in the fall of 1969.

TM: What was music at UCB like in the early seventies?

AA: Not being a performer of a classical instrument with
any capability, it was interesting how composition got started for me. I was
in a class in which every student was asked to perform, and my fellow
classmates got up and played the viola, or the piano, and the only way for me
to do the assignment was for me to have written the piece myself, so that I
could find a way to perform. At the same time I realized that I could sing,
and was attracted to the choirs available at the department, which I found
very stimulating. Some of my strongest memories of those years are performing
new music as a singer. They had commissioned Roger Sessions to write a
cantata, and I was involved in the premiere of that as a member of the chorus
ñ When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed — big full-length
cantata, forty-five minutes or so, as I recall. A cappella Schoenberg ñ
De Profundis — difficult, but I was loving it. Various kinds of
pick-up groups, since those were the years of Vietnam, strikes, there would
be a sudden convocation. There was one where in a few days we had to learn
music that had been written for us to sing. There were a lot of things going
on, but my memories are primarily of new music events.

TM: Early music in the seventies was also outside the
mainstream. Was there an important early music scene going on?

AA: Philip Brett was on the faculty then, someone that
people know for his interest in British early music and gay studies. I sang a
number of early music concerts with his group in those days. There were
musicology students who would get groups together to sing JosquinÖ

TM: To go back to your rock and roll roots for a moment,
what sort of rock were you doing before getting to Berkeley?

AA: When we started we were covering California surf
bands, and then it got into the British bands. I remember learning lots of
Yardbirds and Zombies, and from California, the Byrds. When we started to do
our own stuff it was derivative of San Francisco, something like the
Jefferson Airplane.

TM: Did this music end up being integrated into your
approach to composition?

AA: I donít know where it is. To me, not only was the
electric guitar put away in a case, and left at my motherís house, and not
found again for twenty years, but the music associated with it was also
pushed aside. I do have memories of walking out of the music building at
Berkeley and hearing rock bands playing from a quarter-mile away, and
thinking ìthat sounds great!î Once or twice I went to some venue at
night. I remember sitting up close and seeing Jerry Garcia playing in New
Riders of the Purple Sage, not much farther from him than you and I are now,
but by and large it was just something that I didnít pay much attention.
You couldnít avoid it, being in a large college town ñyou hear the music,
you live in a dormitory, and itís playing down the hallway — but I
wasnít doing anything with it, and since I was trying to learn to write
music pretty much on my own, I was looking at scores of the European
avant-garde, and trying to emulate that.

TM: What were the composers that had an effect on your
hearing in the seventies? My friends and I made a point of hearing the most
avant-garde things we could — Sessions piano sonatas, and so on, and the
Ives revival was going on.

AA: Ives was big in California too. I remember getting
Ives piano music as a Christmas present, and loving it. Somewhere along the
line I heard the Rite of Spring, and the Berg Violin Concerto, and
of all things getting a recording of the Schoenberg Woodwind Quintet, a
rather severe piece by comparison. One thing that really enthused me was
seeing — I canít imagine this now — Pierre Boulez on television — he
must have been conducting Marteau — and thinking what a fabulous
world of sound this was.

At Berkeley, as a student, there was a fair amount of new music. I
remember hearing a concert performance of Le Marteau there too. The
most important composer as a role model, someone I wanted to emulate, was
when then-young Fred Lerdahl was on the faculty at Berkeley for a few brief
years. Hearing him conduct a couple of his pieces, particularly one called
Wake — I remember being blown away by it. Also, because of the
proximity to Mills College there was a staunch avant-garde side in the Bay
area. There was a Cage happening on the Berkeley campus, which must have been
trying to duplicate the Black Mountain Happening. People on ladders stringing
Christmas tree lights, a giant balloon that was inflated and tossed into the
audience, batted around like at a baseball gameÖwild, madcap happenings.

I remember a big Antheil concert with someone in tuxedo but no shoesÖ.I
donít remember any of the early minimalist composers. There was a
performance of Merce Cunningham where Cage came out and sat down in a chair,
took a bottle of champagne out of a cooler, poured it very
deliberatelyÖ.takes a sip, opens one of his books, starts
readingÖmeanwhile the dance had been going on for ten minutes.

TM: We look back at the seventies and think ìwhat a
revolutionary period!î, but inside the academic walls it was as
conservative as could be imagined.

AA: I had traditional harmony and counterpoint classes
with Andrew Imbrie. We had to write tonal fugues in the style of Bach. I just
ate that stuff up. I didnít actually study composition with anybody as an
undergraduate — I felt insecure about my abilities. The content of the
courses was very traditional, and the education probably had a greater impact
on my development than the avant-garde things mentioned earlier.

TM: Where did you go after Berkeley?

AA: I went to Brandeis University in Waltham,
Massachusetts. One of my teachers had said ìthere is this professor you
would probably get along withî, Seymour Shifrin, who had been a faculty
member at Berkeley, but had left before I was an undergraduate there. I
applied, and amazed, now, that I got in, because there were so few pieces
that I had to send with the application. I ended up getting a PhD, and taught
there for many years as well.

TM: Those who know the Boston scene may know Shifrin, but
perhaps he is not generally well-known elsewhere.

AA: Itís true, heís not. His music has disappeared
since he died in 1979. He was a very high-minded fellow. There was a purpose
to everything. I am talking about oneís commitment to writing music, his
own, and what he expected of his students. Extremely serious. Everything was
questioned; nothing could be put down on a page without full commitment to it
and its significance. Nothing was automatic. For some people this was a
difficult environment — they werenít used to thinking this closely about
everything. I wasnít a particular fast composer, so I didnít find it
inhibiting. His standards were very high. I didnít study with him my first
year at Brandeis. I remember showing him the piece that I wrote. I was very
proud of it — it was the longest thing I had ever written.

His response was ìWellÖyou use the same type of phrase shapingî. He
was probably right, but it wasnít what I wanted to hear at that moment.

One of the features of his music that had a profound impact on me for a
long time was that there was very little repetition. Again, everything had to
be discovered, nothing could automatically come back. There were things that
repeated, but almost in a covert way — they werenít obvious returns. It
had an effect on the way I heard, or even on my ability to hear certain
things in pieces of music. I emulated it, I wanted to be like that, and for a
long time my music had very little repetition, either local or

TM: Is this stripping-down to the most basic expressive
gesture, without using repetition to build a form, something that comes from

AA: Shifrin was not a serial composer. He was not a
pianist, but would write his music at the piano, and my sense was that he was
always hunting for what the next pitch would be. Not that he couldnít
project shapes, he certainly could. There is more repetition in Schoenberg
than there is in Shifrin. As you say, he would whittle it to down to the
essential thing that has to be said next. You listen to Shifrinís music and
you would think from my description that it would be a few sparse notes.
Itís not that at all. Itís almost as if you have headed out into the
jungle, and there is more underbrush than you could ever possibly imagine. A
piece that I loved was Satires of Circumstance, with these elaborate,
melismatic instrumental lines, spinning out numbers of notes — they are
very elegant lines. And you think what was he talking about, about paring it
down — you didnít have to pare it down, you just had to know that every
note was the important one at that moment, what it meant, and what its
purpose was.

TM: Do you recall some of the things he was working on at
the time?

AA: A piano piece, Responses. I heard Robert
Helps premiere the piece at Carnegie Recital Hall, at a concert that Shifrin
himself couldnít attend, probably for health reasons already. The fifth
string quartetÖone of his last pieces, In the Nick of Time,
commissioned by Speculum Musicae. I remember copying some of the parts for
that, if I am not mistaken. A piece for early music instruments, A
Renaissance Garland
, with recorder, lute, viol, and a singer.

TM: It seems that this influence of ìparing-downî
from Shifrin is something that continues in your work until today.

AA: That is true. I have made a conscious effort to put
things in my music that he didnít have in his. There have been pieces where
I tell people ìbelieve it or not, this piece is an effort to bring in
repetition in one way or anotherî. A piece which I wrote in 1996, Cloud
, where this was one of my goals in writing it. There are some
small chordal formations which are arpeggiated and repeated — it seems like
such a simple thing, a basic thing that music has done for centuries in one
form or another, whether itís accompanimental parts in Mozart, or more
recently, in flamboyant manner, in minimalist repetition, but for me I had to
struggle with my hand every time I wanted to repeat a note, or have a chord
repeat. The other hand was trying to bat it away. Someone listening casually
might think that repetition wasnít a particularly important part of this
music, yet for me it was a major breakthrough that I was able to include it
in any way at all.

An element of compositional naivetÈ on my part is insisting for years in
finding ways to not repeat some basic material. Itís a hard-fought battle
for me to make myself really think of thematic shapes, thematic contents,
that reusing them is not only a means to make compositions grow, but makes
them audible in a way that is remarkable when you actually do it. I am
laughing as I am saying this — these are basic and obvious things, but they
were hard fought on my part, to get them in there.

With respect to Shifrin, I certainly still revere him as a person, and
admire the music, but there had to be a conscious break for me to try some
things on my own.

TM: The lack of repetition is the antithesis of

AA: I try to place the music I write in some other
listening place than the easy one. Itís demanding on the listener, and
demanding on the performers as well. I want the experience of listening to it
to be a different kind of experience than the one that might lead to
danceÖ.thatís not to say that elements of dance in a potentially more
refined form arenít things that I wantÖelegance, grace of motion, I
certainly aspire to those things. The concert hall experience for my music
that I want Öit wouldnít be right to call it meditation, but thereís an
element of thoughtÖnot only a physical response, as important as that

TM: Were there other important figures in your study at

AA: I studied with Marty Boykan during my first year in
graduate school. I hadnít had much formal compositional training, so it was
my first extended experience showing music to someone as I was writing it,
and getting feedback. Marty was and remains the most profound musical thinker
that I have encountered — he always has the best insights, the best
references to examples of a similar problem from the great works of the
classical music literature — how Beethoven handled this problem, or how
Brahms couldnít manage to get something similar to work. The depth and
delicacy of his understanding of his music had a profound effect on me.

TM: Letís talk about some of the pieces which have been
recorded on CRI. Was the String Quartet written for the Lydian Quartet?

AA: Not exactly Ö. the Lydians recorded it. Itís a
three-movement piece, and the middle movement was written first. This was
when I was living in Boston, and the middle movement was written as a wedding
present for two people who are here on the faculty at UNCÖ

TM: whose initials are in the titleÖ

AA: ìVariations on S.K. and R.Lî, who are now my
colleagues and good friends of mine, Susan Klebanow and Richard Luby. Susan
Klebanow is the choral director and Richard Luby is a violinist.

TM: Susan was at Brandeis.

AA: She was at Brandeis when I was a graduate student and
she was an undergraduate. She, my wife, and I all sang in early music groups
together at Brandeis. That middle movement was based on the spelling out of
their names in musical notation, and in the variations I tried to capture
some element, some form of music that we shared, so thereís some very
loosely shaped references to madrigals, an effort to get some baroquish
string writing in there, because at the time Richard was playing a lot of
baroque violin. Thereís an attempt to capture the sound of Broadway show
tunesÖ.all this in a style that is never any of these things overtly. After
that was written, and I had it played by the Lydian Quartet at Brandeis, I
thought that maybe there could be a whole quartet built around this.

Not long after that I lost my job at Brandeis — didnít get tenure
there, and the first movement was written in a kind of defiant ìIíll show
ëemî anger at the forces that beÖ

the first movement is rather turbulent, and alternates between a vigorous
music and one that is more resigned, with the resignation winning out at the
end. The third movement is a sort of rondo.

TM: One of the things that struck me was how it drifts
away at the end.

AA: I had a long-standing reluctance to end anything with
a clear, forceful affirmation. It has happened in some more recent pieces,
but there was a period of time in which that was about the only way that I
could figure out how to get a piece to end, to have it trail off in one way
or another.

TM: Could you talk about Casting Ecstatic?

AA: The Lydians had recorded the string quartet, and
after the recording session Dan Stepner, the first violinist, said in
exchange for having recorded this piece for you, I want you to write me a
solo violin piece as a sort of payment. A win-win situationÖ.I wrote
Casting Ecstatic for Dan, and thought of it as a sort of concert
etude for violin. There are a number of tricks in it that are devices that I
was interested in exploring — itís not an etude in the most concentrated,
single-minded sense. Among the things that show up in that piece are efforts
to have the violinist refinger the same pitch in close succession in order to
avail himself of fingerings for other notes around it, as well as a sort of
tremolo between a normally-stopped note and a harmonic in the same place on
the finger board. This latter is the thing which I was referring to in the
title, the ìecstaticnessî of a note that suddenly takes off, and almost
loses control under the finger of the player. That was one of the grounding

TM: How was the move from the contemporary music in
Boston to UNC?

AA: After teaching at Brandeis, I taught for two years at
Columbia, and commuted back and forth between Boston and New York. When the
possibility came for a permanent job, I moved to North Carolina. There are
good people in contemporary music in North Carolina. There has always been
activity at Duke and at Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill has added a director for the
arts, Emil Kang, who wants to make Chapel Hill a real center for new music. I
keep busyÖ.

TM: You have a recent set of pieces for saxophone
quartet. They seem to be a little more transparent in style, maybe drawing on
the French wind tradition, with more repetition.

AA: That piece is from 2000-2001, and the repetition has
become more of the language of that piece. One of the reasons that it happens
in the saxophone collection is that it is the first piece in which I entered
it into notation software as I was writing it, rather than writing it on
paper, and then transferring it. Although itís not always a good idea, I
was pushing the replay button, and listening to how the computer performed
it, and I would say that it was due to the software that the repetition
became so pervasive in that composition.

Itís a curious set — a quartet in three movements, like the string
quartet, but in this case, itís the last movement which is the most
important — it is as long itself as the other two combined. The first
movement is just a table-setter — short, with a clear, straightforward
shape to it, building by increments, with an ebb and flow, two-thirds of the
way through it has its highest point, and falls off to the end. The second
movement is almost entirely cantabile, based on sustained lines in one
instrument or the other, and stems from my memory of a piece by Peter Maxwell
Davies that goes back to when I was an undergraduate, one I liked very much,
the Leopardi Fragments. I was sitting at my piano, not at the computer,
thinking about what to do, and found myself playing something that was like
the beginning of that Maxwell Davies piece, and not really getting it right,
but using it as the opening. Weíre talking about two measures worth of
material, and you can see that I didnít get I quite right, so I say in the
score ìafter a misremembered measure or so of Peter Maxwell Daviesî.

The third movement has been performed by itself, and works by itself
without the other two, although I prefer it to be in their company. Some
things I like are where all the parts get going, and it gets a kind of
groove. Thereís not an obvious repetition to it, but the momentum builds

TM: Your commission for the UNC chorus is quite different
in style from your other works.

AA: When I came to UNC, Susan Klebanow asked me if I
would write a piece for her chamber singers. I wrote a piece for piano and
small choir to a text of Denise Levertov, and that was the first choral thing
I had written in a long time. The piece you are referring to I wrote just
over a year ago. Two years ago, the chair of the music department asked me,
at the completion of the graduation ceremony, to write a piece for the
graduation ceremony in the music department. I had no idea how to handle that
ñ the music that I had written just didnít lend itself to a
commemorative, ceremonial function, and I had no idea how to fulfill the
request. I put it aside for nine months.

In a composition class one of my students showed me a song that he was
working on, and it seemed like he didnít go very far in developing his
material. So I wanted to rewrite it to show him how it could go. It turned
out to be an inspiration to myself to write a choral piece. The next thing I
had to have was a text. What kind of text do you use at college graduation
ceremony? I ended up finding a translation of a Li Po poem.

The nature of its language is because it was for a graduation ceremony. A
year ago it was premiered, not only by the graduating students, but by all
their relatives in the audience.

We had 250 scores, and they all sightread itÖit was performed again at
the graduation ceremony last weekend, but this time by a small choir.

TM: Can you tell me about current projects?

AA: About two years ago, my colleague here at UNC,
flutist Brooks de Wetter Smith, asked if I wanted to work on a collaborative
project. He was going to Antarctica, planned to take photographs, and wanted
to know if there was some way we could make something with sound and light
when he got back. He took over 4000 photographs, and when he came back we
went through them. I canít say I looked at all 4000Öbut we assembled a
number of photographs that would offer some cohesion. I wrote a score for
that, which was just performed two weeks ago. That was the Iceblink project,
for flute, clarinet, percussion, harp, violin, viola, cello, double bass,
soprano and narrator — live music while the photographs were projected ñ
not IMAX, but large all the same. It was interesting to work on. I was forced
to complete every step as I went along, instead of blocking out the whole in
any way. While I was writing, Brooks was feeding the photographs into a
program to time them to the music. He needed to know exactly how long things
would be to do it, so I had to work from the beginning straight through to
the end, with very little revision time. As a result I wrote thirty-five
minutes of music in seven months, which is much faster than I am used to

It was exhausting, so I canít say much about the next one, except that
it will involve both professional and student performers.

[Click here for an excerpt from Held In the Weave]

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