An interview with Scott Lindroth

Composer Scott Lindroth has been teaching at Duke University since his
arrival in North Carolina in 1990. In 2007 he went from being chair of the
Department of Music to being the Vice-Provost of the Arts. His 2001 work for
band, Spin Cycle, has been recorded several times, and has joined the
standard repertoire, with dozens of performances nationwide. We spoke in his
studio at Duke on March 17, 2008.

TM: Where do you come from musically? How did you get started? What were
your family influences?

SL: I started late compared with most people who go into the profession
— I started taking piano lessons when I was ten years old. My folks told
me that I had wanted to start earlier, when I was five or six, but I was
having a lot of trouble in school, and teachers in those days thought that
music would be an unwelcome distraction, that I should get my act together
before I took on another project. We would probably think differently today,
but that was the wisdom of the early sixties.

My father played violin as a child. I had his violin, but I never heard
him play, and he was never active in any way as a musician that I recall. He
was a music lover, with a pretty good record collection, both classical music
and some jazz of the forties and fifties, as well as pop — lots of
Sinatra. For me, I remember that I always wanted to be involved in music in
some way. From the time I started playing piano at ten I just could not wait
to get going. I was also in a boys’ choir. Once I started I was very intense
about my participation, practicing endlessly, and not long after I began to
compose, when I was twelve or thirteen. I don’t know that I was conspicuously
talented, but because I put in a lot of time, word got out in the community.
I was very eager to do anything I could as a musician.

When I was in seventh grade, I started to play saxophone, which was a way
to have some kind of communal music making, as opposed to the isolation of
being a pianist. It was a revelation to be playing a large ensemble —
both concert bands as well as jazz ensembles. It was probably my exposure to
jazz that helped bring some focus to my work as a composer. Earlier I had
tried imitating pop music of the day, without knowing much about what I was

Jazz had an enormous appeal to me. I loved the complexity of the
improvisations, the richness of the harmony, the incredible virtuosity of the
musicians. Even though there was a format that was followed, it seemed to
invite endless diversity — you could do anything, within the constraints
that the medium imposed. Looking back at it, I reveled in a sense of freedom.
Anything that I could hear, or imagine, or challenge myself to hear, I could
find a way to express that through the jazz idiom.

The first pieces of mine that really began to sound like anything were for
jazz ensemble. I got to high school, and had a very ambitious band director
who just pushed me into writing things where I had no idea what I was doing,
but he gave me an opportunity to try my hand at it. Initially, I brought in a
Count Basie-style chart that I had written when I was in tenth grade. It took
him completely by surprise, but it was based on all the Basie arrangements by
Sammy Nestico that I had played through middle school and was playing in high
school. It sounded pretty good — there were some things that were a
little hard for a high school group, but he immediately made me write more.
He said “it’s already publicized — there are going to be two pieces by
you!”, so I did.ving a lot of tr

It was a joy for me to be doing that. I was beginning to explore
improvisation, as a saxophonist, but especially as a pianist, which I regard
as my primary instrument. I was beginning to study classical repertory as
well, but I saw that more as a way of acquiring technique, rather than
feeling like it was a viable channel of personal expression. I loved Bach, I
loved Brahms…I couldn’t play Beethoven or Mozart very well. I loved
listening to those composers, but jazz was really where I felt that I could
focus my creative energy.

I wrote lots of arrangements for jazz ensemble, had my own group, a
quartet, which I would compose for, do arrangements for. We would play gigs
around town, I would play with society bands, and do that kind of work as a
musician. That’s what you did. I was immersing myself as much as I could in
the kind of music-making world that existed in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin —
a small town of 30,000.

There was a harmonic complexity and composition density in jazz that I
felt I could explore, that I was instinctively attracted to. I went to music
camps in the summer, including one that focused on arranging. It was there
that I met people who worked professionally, in New York, in Hollywood, as
well as in universities in the Wisconsin area. There were people who had
studied at the Arranger’s Holiday at Eastman, musicians from Henry Mancini’s
orchestra who were some of the clinicians there, people who had played with
the Temptations — an amazing mix of professional musicians and
composers. I learned so much — anecdotal advice on how to find cool,
interesting chords, ways of thinking about orchestrating for jazz ensemble
that would make the ensemble more three-dimensional. I had been finding my
way instinctively, but here I was getting concrete advice from people for
whom this was their daily bread.

A faculty ensemble that consisted of all the guest artists read one of my
early jazz ensemble pieces. I sat in front of them while they were
sight-reading, and was completely in awe. I had never heard my music played
so well before. It was stunning — all the trumpets were hitting the high
notes, the fast sax figuration — they were just reading it down. When it
was over, I was completely exhilarated, and then they went around the room
and tore me to shreds. “There’s no place to breathe!” “I can’t read your
manuscript!” — one thing after the other. I wasn’t that upset by it,
because I was riding high from hearing the piece played so well, but got a
dose of the reality of the practical side of being a composer — what you
can do to get the musicians on your side — what are the best registers
on an instrument, how much time do they need to breathe….

That moment of being able to get a peak artistic experience along with
practical advice was just tremendous. If my work as composer has
distinctiveness it was forged in that setting — being able to think
idealistically, but understanding that there are practical concerns.

I wanted to go to music school, and my folks were wonderful through all
this, although they were not musicians themselves, and didn’t have any idea
what being a professional musician would mean. They were always completely
supportive of what I wanted to do. I applied to Eastman, University of
Michigan, and to University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

I was admitted to Eastman, much to my surprise. I went to the interview,
and did not know anything of contemporary music, and little classical music.
My portfolio at the time was several jazz band charts, and a Rodgers &
Hammerstein medley that I arranged for the concert band with the boys’ chorus
that I had sung in when I was ten, and a few original pieces where I was
trying my hand at a more classical style without really knowing what that
meant. They liked my work, and wanted me to go to Eastman. It really floored

So I began to try to learn not only what classical music was, but also
contemporary music. I went to the public library and checked out LPs of
Stockhausen and Varese, and picked up an LP of Pierrot Lunaire, and
the John Cage string quartet, at the local record store. On the flip side of
the Cage was George Crumb’s Black Angels, and the first time I
listened to that I thought that there was something wrong with the stereo. It
begins with the ffff onslaught, and goes to something that is barely
audible. I had never heard anything like it before, and I can’t say that I
understood it. With Varese there is some kind of visceral connection. I was
totally puzzled by the Schoenberg. I picked up Morton Subotnick’s
Silver Apples of the Moon, the original Nonesuch recording, which I
thought was fascinating. I liked the sense that there was a world with people
writing music that I didn’t understand, but somehow they wrote it. There had
to be a way to understand it.

I liked jazz because there was a complexity, a density, something to
stretch your ears and your imagination, and here I was discovering another
kind of music which took that to a higher order of magnitude. I can’t say
that I loved it, but I was fascinated by it. For me the musical
experience has to include this sense of wonder. I was fascinated music that
is inscrutable but utterly absorbing. It doesn’t tell you how to listen to
it, but you have to figure out what are the things that you are going to pay
attention to.

I began to see that contemporary music offered this opportunity, which was
quite different from what I had been doing. I was thinking socially, about
pieces that are needed, what people like to listen to, what people like to
play….I was thoroughly indoctrinated in that. I didn’t resent it at all
— it was fine. To see that there was another world that didn’t play by
those rules was very intriguing.

TM: Jazz is one of those words that means many different things — a
stage band at a high school, or Henry Mancini, or John Coltrane, or Sun Ra.
According to the canonical histories, the early seventies was a terrible time
for jazz — fusion, the nadir of American jazz, at least according to the
Marsalis school. What was jazz in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in the early
seventies? I think of 1972-1974 as John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra,
Miles Davis at the very limit…..

SL: I listened to a lot of bands in those days. There was a move to try to
bring jazz into the public schools, which gave new life to a lot of old
bands, everyone from Woody Herman to more progressive voices, being able to
tour to high schools and colleges, and publishing their charts for
performance by school bands. I listened to Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson’s
band was very big at the time, Stan Kenton in the music education field, with
mixed meters, all these wonderful Hank Levy charts that we played by him.

I also listened to some stranger things, Don Ellis, who was the West Coast
hippie version of a jazz band, experimenting with technology and psychedelia,
which was hard to get a handle on from where I was. Buddy Rich &– he
played in our high school gymnasium, if you can imagine such a thing. That
was the repertory that I knew, and when our bands played in state festivals,
that is the music that you heard. It was exciting.

As a keyboard player I saved up my pennies from working at McDonalds to
buy a Fender Rhodes, which is what you had to buy in those days.

TM: Do you still have it?

SL: It has been sold. I left it with my parents. I wish I did still have

As a keyboard player the fusion world was emerging. I listened to a lot of
Herbie Hancock, both in the context of the Miles Davis Quintet, which I
adored, and then with Headhunters. The musicianship is just unbelievable
— it’s not Spyro Gyra, for example, which I would say is a late decadent
manifestation of fusion. Return to Forever — I liked Chick Corea’s
playing but the loud, electric stuff was hard to listen to — I much
preferred when he played with Gary Burton on acoustic piano. Herbie Hancock I
found exciting no matter what he played — he is just such an amazing
improviser. The things that he does on albums like Nefertiti, for
example, just thrilled me, or his albums before Headhunters….

TM: Mwandishi….

SL: Just an amazing band. Chick Corea’s quintet with Joe Farrell and Woody
Shaw — that was the stuff I really loved. The harmonic syntax — you
couldn’t find too many ii – V – I progressions in that music, let
alone anything based on blues. That kind of free-floating approach to harmony
and melody I found exciting, and inspiring.

Weather Report was a group I really liked — Wayne Shorter I continue
to adore as a sax player.

That was the world in terms of more adventurous jazz. I knew some of the
late Coltrane, but didn’t really get a handle on that until later, when I
began to fill out my historical knowledge of more classic jazz.

TM: Once you got to Eastman, how did you make the transition from
mainstream big-band jazz to contemporary music? What was the compositional
environment there like in the seventies?

SL: I arrived at Eastman in 1976. Contemporary music was beginning to go
through a period of reassessment. George Rochberg’s work was questioning the
historical necessity of twelve-tone music. Eastman itself, just by its
location, halfway between the Midwest and the east coast, was in some ways
removed from the situation where serialism was a mainstream in university
music departments (if it was). That certainly wasn’t the case at Eastman.
Howard Hanson was alive. He wasn’t teaching, but I remember going to a
concert that he conducted. There was an idea of an American school of
composition that was somewhat independent of the cutting-edge trends. This
left more room for students to explore what they wanted. The composition
faculty at the same time included Sam Adler, Joe Schwantner, who was the
Young Turk, had just been at the school for a couple of years, was in his
early thirties, and Warren Benson. Even among those three the stylistic range
was enormous. Sam brought a combination of Piston and Hindemith with an
interest in Schoenberg. Schwantner was the modernist, but at the same time
was beginning to composer works that made use of tonality, though
conceptualized as trichords that were manipulated systematically, but
nonetheless evoking the idea of tonal music and quotation. Warren Benson was
a composer of vocal music, with a deep sensitivity to text, and using that as
a way of thinking quite speculatively about how music might be conceived. He
could do anything from writing a straightforward band piece, to things that
are quite strange and odd and hard to pin down, because he is thinking in
terms of metaphor and imagery which he is struggling to capture in music.

There wasn’t an “Eastman sound” at the time. I didn’t know what was what
in terms of contemporary music. I studied with Joe Schwantner as a freshman,
and at my first lesson, in his very small studio, he said “I have got to go
make a phone call. Here, listen to this new piece by Mort Subotnick”, and
puts “Until Spring” on the record player, with the volume cranked up. The
piece terrified me, but at the same time I was absolutely thrilled by it. My
first composition lesson ever, and this is what is being presented. He gave
me ten pages of repertory to learn, and it was all post-1945. I methodically
spent time going through Babbitt, and late Stravinsky, and Carter, and
Rochberg, Dallapiccola -all composers who helped define the postwar
landscape. Certainly the emphasis was on the European modernist school,
rather than Barber, or Ned Rorem, or other very capable composers. It became
the soundtrack to my life at Eastman, and it was a real challenge to try to
come to grips with this. My first piece was something like Prokofiev, a
woodwind trio, a march, with tonal qualities to it, but more dissonant and
chromatic than anything I had done at that point. I thought I was at the edge
there, given what I had done before. It was clear to me that Schwanter was
eager for me to move on to other things. I remember spinning my wheels on a
chamber ensemble work — everyone was playing key clicks and breath
sounds — and he wasn’t excited about that either.ano at ten I just co

A friend of mine, another composer, played Le Marteau sans Maitre
for me, which totally knocked me out. It was the first modern piece where I
was just utterly captivated by the sheer beauty of the music. The vocal
writing was a little tough — but the instrumental writing was just
absolutely gorgeous. There was a sensuous beauty that I found exquisite, and
exciting, with a rhythmic vitality and energy. It spoke to me in an immediate
way, without having to understand anything about the constructive procedures
involved. It just hit me.

My response was to compose a piece scored for flute, cello, xylophone,
vibraphone and piano. There’s an overlap with the Marteau ensemble,
but differences as well. I had rhythmic scaffolding or patterns that I would
work with, a way of being able to find notes that would give me sonorities
that I wanted to use, allowing me work in a methodical way in exploring
uncharted territory for me as an artist. Most importantly the piece sounded
great, and achieved everything that I had hoped it would, the colors I was
going for, the textures I imagined — it all spoke right away at the
first rehearsal. The piece was extremely difficult to play, but people seemed
to get it, that there was a colorful world here, that all these disjointed
and complex rhythms would make sense in that context. The experience of
hearing this piece played very well by a group of freshman musicians at
Eastman began to give me the confidence that I could navigate this world of
contemporary music, that here was a way that I could speak authoritatively as
a composer, with real accomplishment, a definite artistic point of view, that
helped me gained a foothold. This was the next formative experience, where I
got a glimpse of what my artistic identity as a composer could be, something
that I could build on.

TM: In American contemporary music it seems now that everything is
possible — you don’t have to write serial music, it’s not like the
Soviet Union where you had to write socially useful music, there’s no impetus
to write nationalist music. How did you find a voice that appealed to you as
a composer in the late seventies and early eighties?

SL: The idea of a voice for me is a little tricky, because I always
bristled at the idea of having just one voice. I had so many different kinds
of musical interests — I didn’t feel that I had to find a way to
reconcile jazz with Boulez. Why? Jazz was fine on its own. At the same time I
was excited about trying to find a way to work speculatively with music. To
be fascinated by music, to be absorbed by a composition was something I
valued as much as being moved by a composition, and I continue to feel that
way. Both of those experiences are hugely important to me, and they lead to
different kinds of voices.

People might listen to my music and say “yes, it’s all cut from the same
cloth”, but I wanted to feel like I could go off in any direction I pleased,
regardless of the track record I had, or what my interests were supposed to
be based on earlier works. At Eastman at the time there wasn’t an orthodox
“Eastman sound”, so it left room for different kinds of voices to emerge. The
piece I mentioned — I was an eighteen-year-old, studying with Joe
Schwantner, at the time a hard-core modernist. I thought “yeah, I want to try
my hand at that”. When I started working with Sam Adler, who has much more of
a neo-classical training, my interests would change as well. Imagine trying
to reconcile Walter Piston with Morton Feldman. These were interesting
problems. When Rothko Chapel came out, it was one of the most
beautiful pieces I had ever heard. I traveled to Buffalo to hear the Steve
Reich Ensemble play Drumming at the Albright-Knox Museum, with
fifteen people in the audience. A total revelation — where did this
music come from? It was music from another planet as far as I was concerned.
These were powerful aural images in my mind, in addition to the things I was
studying in my coursework at Eastman.

I tried to find a way to cultivate a speculative world, exploring novel
musical territory, imaginative territory, and reconcile that with ways that
musicians could play something they would enjoy playing, that would sound
well in a more-or-less self-evident way — that was a preoccupation that
began to emerge then.

Having a single voice is still a problem for me. I like to feel that a
composer can speak many languages, that that is a viable way of being an
artist today.

TM: From Eastman you went on graduate study. Who did you work with? What
was the esthetic? How does the dynamic of speculative vs. social continue to
play out?

SL: I almost didn’t go to graduate school. Right before I left Eastman I
was working at a planetarium in Rochester. They had a job for a
composer/sound engineer. They produced their own shows, and had a little
studio with a mini-Moog, a Rhodes, a Farfisa, a big sound effects library. I
wrote music for their shows. They would hire someone like Leonard Nimoy to
read a narration. I wrote kids’ shows, and the script would say “25 seconds.
Do a supernova”, and I would write music that would do that. They would synch
the visuals to my music, which was great! I had taken film music composition
classes at Eastman, so I had been thinking about going into the commercial
industry as a way to make a living as a composer.

I wound up being accepted at Yale, and what made me go there was a summer
at the Norfolk Contemporary Music Seminar, where Jacob Druckman, who was
teaching at Yale at the time, brought together Joe Schwantner, Morton
Feldman, George Crumb, Seymour Shifrin. I thought that anybody who can get
along with all these people must be a remarkable man, and that this must be a
remarkable program. Again, it was important that there wasn’t going to be a
single institutional style.

It was very exciting. The other students that I met from Yale had
incredible chops, real professionalism and sophistication, musically and
imaginatively, that I didn’t see at Eastman.

After a year at Yale, I planned to take a leave of absence and try my hand
at film music, but ultimately I stuck around. There I worked with Earle
Brown, Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Jacob Druckman, who was the only
Yale faculty member I studied with. Yale had a policy that you studied with
as many teachers as you possibly could — you did not have an
apprenticeship. This was an opportunity for a composer to be exposed to
widely differing artistic points of view, and you had to figure out how to
navigate that yourself.

That was a challenge, but an exciting one, and one that was valuable for
me. In the end I had to figure how I would make my way as a composer, and
what kind of music I was going to write. On the one hand, it was like being
in a pinball machine, bouncing from one composer to the next, but they were
all extremely provocative, with strong points of view, and not always in
agreement with each other. It reinforced the idea that you had to find your
own voice.

My classmates at Yale were David Lang, Aaron Kernis, Michael Daugherty,
Michael Gordon. Having classmates as ridiculously talented as these people
were was intensely stimulating. You learn as much from interaction with other
students as you do from your weekly lessons. There is more continuity there,
since these are the people that you see every day, as opposed to the seminar
teacher who comes in one day a week from New York.

TM: You have a work on a Bang on a Can Live CD [Bang on a Can
, vol. 1, issued on CRI in 1992]. The press buzz that Bang on a
produced (at least for me, living outside New York) was that it
managed to combine the transgressive excitement of rock with classical
contemporary music. Tell me about this esthetic.

SL: As you said, the publicity for Bang on a Can was “these are people who
grew up listening to rock and roll, and why shouldn’t that be a part of

That formula has always driven me crazy. It may have been true, and was
true for the members, but I don’t know that that was the musical objective.
At least early on, the idea was musical radicalism — why shouldn’t
musical radicals co-exist, why should boundaries defined by institutional
affiliations or stylistic interests separate radical, imaginative musical
thinking. So really the idea was not so much fusing contemporary music with
popular music or rock, but having a concert where a piece by Babbitt could be
followed by a piece by Steve Reich, which is exactly what they did in that
first festival. They were determined to get Babbitt and Steve Reich in the
room at the same time, and even get a picture of them next to each other,
with their pieces programmed back-to-back. Or Cage, who was also in
attendance at that concert. Bang on a Can sought out the most daring and
accomplished composers regardless of their aesthetic differences.

That was the idea of Bang on a Can, and in that context, Babbitt sounds
incredible. You don’t listen to it with the rhetoric of Perspectives of New
Music in mind. Philomel is a stunning piece, all the more so when it
is followed by Four Organs, another stunning piece. Why do you have
to separate these things? Putting the music in this context underscores the
courage and individuality of these composers, rather than hearing them in a
context where they are the most accomplished practitioners of a particular
school of composition. Why can’t we hear all of this at once? Why do we have
to go one place to hear Babbitt, another place to hear Reich, and yet another
to hear Cage? That was what was exciting about Bang on a Can, at least for

One thing that Bang on a Can became known for, and which I didn’t know I
was doing at the time, was the idea of a post-minimalism, perhaps informed by
more chromatic harmony, more complex rhythms than the pulse-oriented music of
Reich. Louis Andriessen was the huge figure for the Bang on a Can composers
&– he was a composer who could combine European modernism with the
visceral energy of minimalism, somebody who brought these seemingly disparate
worlds together in compelling music.

That’s how I understood the spirit of that festival, and was very excited
about that myself. The piece that’s on that recording, Relations to
(a terrible title, but what can I do…) has a long history, in
that it started off as an impossible-to-play piece for youth orchestra, and
then morphed into a piece for fifteen instruments that the Yale contemporary
ensemble attempted to play, but could not. I was so discouraged that when a
friend invited me to work at the electronic studios at CalArts, over winter
break, I made a MIDI version of the chamber work. Of course, everything in
the music was now in place, but it was completely drained of any life-blood,
and I thought “how am I going to rescue this piece?” I composed new music for
a Pierrot ensemble to play along with the MIDI transcription, and that was
the version that finally worked, and got a lot of performances. It travels
very easily, and even though there are only six instruments on stage it
sounds like there is a whole army playing. At the time, it allowed me to
explore instrumental virtuosity enhanced by an electronic world that I was
trying to come to grips with as well.

In 1992, Bang on a Can curated a concert at the Holland Festival, and
programmed Relations to Rigor with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble.
The Wind Ensemble called me and said “this piece only has two wind
instruments. Do you have anything with more winds?” I said “I have a version
for fifteen instruments….”. I recall that David, Michael and Julia were not
happy about that, since they had heard the original piece, and thought it had
problems. But the Wind Ensemble nailed it. They played it beautifully, the
way it was supposed to go. Everything that I had been trying to do in that
piece was in fact in there. I liked it better in some ways than the piece for
sextet and tape. I thought “Gosh, if I had heard this performance first I
would never have gone to the trouble of rewriting it for MIDI.” But beginning
to explore that medium turned out to be fruitful in other ways. It’s
interesting how contingencies of performance can have a dramatic effect on my
work as a composer.

The pieces from that period have various kinds of number games going on,
especially with regard to rhythm. That piece on the Bang on a Can CD is
entirely based on phone numbers of friends in New York at the time — the
idea of the arbitrariness of the numbers was appealing to me. How can I make
these make sense? How can I make a musical statement that has direction and
form even though the numbers have no inherent meaning in themselves? I still
find it exciting to work this way, although in those days I was determined
that every note in the piece would have a reason for being there. I was
always more flexible with pitch, but I was very interested in structuring the
rhythmic life of a piece. That kind of thinking brought me to the
post-minimalist school, or my version of it.

TM: You have a solo CD [Human Gestures] on CRI with a number of different
media. Let’s start with Light from 1993, recorded by D’Anna Fortunato, a
Boston mezzo, with Dinosaur Annex, a Boston ensemble. What were the
circumstances of the commission? Did you choose the subject and the text?

As a listener what struck me was the “Messiaenic” quality of both the
instrumentation and the musical style.

SL: Light was composed for a festival in the Midwest — friends of
mine from Yale who were living in Minneapolis organzied a festival of
contemporary music, and had engaged the Milwaukee-based ensemble Present
Music to play new pieces. That dictated the instrumentation. The first
version was for countertenor, and the text was by William James. The piece
had spoken passages. The text was from James’ late writings, a gloss on
Henri Bergson found in “A Pluralistic Universe”. It is an
ecstatic vision of life that I found beautiful and moving, life as a process
in which you are inventing yourself from moment to moment. Creativity happens
by throwing yourself into a situation and adapting to it.

I tried to set the text to music, and some of it worked beautifully, but
the spoken parts did not. Present Music wanted to do the piece again, and I
decided to rewrite it with. As much as I loved the William James text, it was
just too cumbersome to sing. In reading Hildegard, the text has a circular
quality which creates an ecstatic spiral, which comes to a focal point of a
vision of Christ. I was able to rewrite the vocal part to accommodate the new

Dinosaur Annex performed it a few times, and then recorded it. One can
hear Messiaen in this piece — I have always gravitated to the colorful
harmonic texture in his music. It may also go back to my admiration of

TM: You remark in the notes for Human Gestures, if I can paraphrase, that
the string quartet is a fraught medium in terms of its historical
antecedents. In listening to your String Quartet for the Ciompi Quartet from
1997, I hear aspects of computer music, of minimalism, and of French music.
Where did you come from in creating a voice for this piece?

SL: You have singled out all of the things that I was interested in. The
piece is in two movements — a short introductory movement followed by an
eleven-minute main movement, which is what I composed first. It took me a
long time to find my bearings in the medium of the string quartet. The
repetitive and textural aspects were very important to me in that piece, but
at the same time I wanted it not to have the “aloofness” of minimalist music,
but to have the expressive richness that a string quartet can do so
beautifully. I wanted to find a way to use a limited gestural language, with
repetition, but to bring a richness of sonority and shape to the phrases, an
ebb and flow to the music that is idiomatic for the string quartet. I was
also concerned with pacing over a long period of time — starting calmly
and serenely, gradually beginning to simmer, and then heat up to a rolling
boil. I wanted to bring together minimalism with a more romantic concept of
having music unfold gradually, and taking its time in doing so, accumulating
intensity and expressive urgency over time.

At the same time, after pieces like Relations to Rigor, which is
speculative in a formal sense with its number games — I thought “another
kind of speculation is engaging with history”. How can a composer engage with
earlier models? I think this String Quartet welcomes influences from tonal
music, and other string quartet writing. These influences co-exist with the
post-minimal world that I was exploring.

The first movement was an after-thought. It was a sketch that I was trying
to use in the main movement, but couldn’t find a home for. After working many
months on the second movement, the first was written in about two weeks.
After “proving myself” in the main movement, I could then write
melody and accompaniment — nothing more.. It was such a pleasure to feel
that I was connecting with something that I did not understand as coming from
within me, that I constructed in a conscious way. The piece just led me
along. I followed it, and wrote it down. It sounds starry-eyed, but that is
what it was. For a composer those are wonderful moments, when everything is
flowing, and comes out right the first time, or if not, you know how to fix
it. That feeling is something that I hope I can recapture in everything I

TM: In conversing with composers, I can see that there can be a myriad of
approaches to composition, but that one is what one might call architectural,
where you know what the overall shape will be, where the arches are, and then
you fill in the details, and another is a “novelistic” approach. Writers are
notorious for creating characters which then take control of how the
architecture of the book will work out, so that the writer doesn’t know the
shape of the work until the characters tell him.

SL: I am very much more of the second school, or perhaps there is a third
one. I am a “bottom-up” composer — I can’t really work in a top-down
way, where I set up the whole architecture of the piece. I did do that once
or twice — it was interesting, a little tedious too…I felt like I was
dutifully filling in the blanks. I am much happier when I am discovering
musical ideas, and trying to figure out what they want to do, and just
letting them spin out over time, finding a way that they will somehow fit
together — you always do find a way. That’s much closer to my
temperament. Even the second movement works that way. These days, when I
begin a piece, it’s not necessarily at the beginning of the piece — it’s
something that may be used, but I have to figure out if it’s the opening or

My music usually isn’t long enough to be novelistic, but certainly the
idea of being bottom up, and responding to the details and having them
assemble themselves into some kind of form is closer to the way I work.

TM: Biological, you might say.

Somehow the duo for two like instruments seems to be a nineteenth or even
eighteenth-century medium, not something that has been especially cultivated
by contemporary composers, though there is a wonderful duo by Birtwistle for
two flutes. It seems too connected to the world of amateur music-making, I
suppose. How did you come to produce this Duo for Violins [also on Human
]? It’s almost too small a medium for a chamber music concert.

SL: It started off as a piece for violin and piano, and the piano writing
was always so similar to what the violin was doing that I thought, really,
this is a piece for two violins. There are minimalist influences, with
hocketing, closely-alternating triple stops, with enormous sonorities from
two instruments…the idea was to create the idea that it was a much larger
ensemble than two violins.

This was 1990, the first piece that I finished after I arrived at Duke,
the first piece where I engaged with history in a way that took me by
surprise. You mentioned the eighteenth century — Corelli, Vivaldi, this
tradition of mechanistic violin writing, incredible virtuosity — the
figuration in that music was very much on my mind, as well as Janacek, a
composer I adore. His string quartets, especially the first, the Kreutzer
Sonata, with its frantic, impassioned string figuration with lots of
repetition, and nervous energy, whether ecstatic, or violent… I found this
enormously appealing.

I wanted to use triadic sonorities because they would ring well on the
instruments. As I worked on it, I realized that I was drawing on historical
models in a way that I never thought I could do, or would do.

I regard this piece as a real breakthrough, in terms of musical ambition,
expressive ambition, getting things down on paper that I had never really
managed to before.

TM: You talked earlier about the social function of music. Music in the
United States has all these tribes, and one tribe, which doesn’t speak to
many of the other tribes, is band music. Another tribe is church music. You
have people who are church music composers and don’t write anything else. You
have very successful band composers, who don’t write anything else.

Spin City, which has been recorded a number of times, is a piece for wind
ensemble that doesn’t sound “bandy” — it’s not drawing on fixed ideas of
what bands can or can’t do. It’s a piece of contemporary music that is
written for band.

SL: You are right about these tribes, though it is changing a little bit.
There are original new band pieces by Chen Yi, Michael Torke, John
Corigliano. Band directors are excited about this.

I had been away from band music so long that I was coming to it with a
different perspective. The work was a commission for the University of
Michigan — from Bob Reynolds, his last commission as music director of
the symphonic band at Michigan. The original idea was very different, with
several tempi going on simultaneously, though all notated in a single tempo.
There was a long, meticulously noted accelerando throughout the piece, even
though the pulse stays the same….

I was really interested in all this, but at some point I thought “this is
going to be hell to play”, so I set it aside. I sat down at the piano, and
came up with the opening figure for Spin Cycle, and off I went.

It’s very difficult, but in a different way — everything does line
up, people can anticipate where the difficulties are going to come, they can
play their passage and have a moment to recover before they do something
else. It was a great deal of fun to compose &– it has number games, but
used locally, rather than globally, as well as my other musical fingerprints.
There are some nods to band music [plays a bit at the piano]… I would
never have done something like that in my string quartet. When I played the
MIDI version for Michael Haithcock, who conducted the premiere, he just
started laughing at that point…but when a band plays it, it sounds totally

A lot of music is ruined by good taste. A composer winds up holding
himself back and not going all the way, to be genuinely daring. Music can
absorb almost anything. I realized “this is the sound of bands. It is going
to sound fine….” It flows right by, and you don’t think “what a clichÈ!”

You can’t find people who are more eager to play contemporary music, not
only the conductors, but the instrumentalists themselves. They really get
excited about playing new pieces, they really want to serve the composer
well. It’s exhilarating to be working with people like that, who will put
that time and care and energy into your work.

TM: Let’s talk about your recent and forthcoming works.

SL: Over the last seven to eight years I have been concerned to seek out
collaborative projects, perhaps out of some frustration in my concert music,
but also to understand about how music comes to mean something to people.
When you are working with a dancer, or a visual artist, or a theater
director, they are keenly aware of how music indexes meanings, and creates
meanings. These things were on my mind. I have always avoided the feeling
that music had to have a particular meaning. I was perfectly happy with the
world of absolute music, that the meaning could be left up to the

My collaborative projects were an attempt to test those assumptions by
working with artists in other genres. I did a choreographic work with Clay
Taliaferro, who recently retired from Duke; I wrote incidental music for Mao
, an adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel by Jody McAuliffe in Theater
Studies, which features a continuous soundscape; and out of that came a
collaboration with Bill Noland for video and music, that developed excerpts
from Mao II into a separate video piece; most recently working with Anya
Belkina, a visual artist who is now at Emerson College, but who taught
graphic design, painting and computer animation here at Duke. This was a
45-minute work in several movements that began with a setting of Rumi, a long
poem called Nasuh, which I set for soprano and string quartet, but with new
movements added for the ensemble Zeitgeist in Minneapolis, with live
electronics, which I played. Taking Rumi as a theme, I transcribed Koranic
recitations, and used that as musical material. The idea of bringing in
something external to my normal musical concerns and using that as a point of
departure was very different, and very exciting. Trying to bring that music
to the ensemble was extremely invigorating, and I think that is something
that I will continue to explore. –

I am working on a trio, a small piece for flute, viola and guitar. I will
have another piece for Dinosaur Annex in a year or so, and hopefully another
large ensemble work coming down the pike. Those are the things that I have
cued up for the future.

image_description=Scott Lindroth
product_title=An interview with Scott Lindroth