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A Conversation with Dan Trueman


An earlier conversation with composer/instrumentalist Dan Trueman, professor of music at Princeton University, appeared in Sonograma in January 2011. In the interim he continues to work in multiple arenas around the intersections of contemporary concert music and traditional music of Scandinavia and Ireland.

We talked via Skype on October 15, 2016. 

TM: I looked back at our interview from 2010, and we went all over the place, dealing with meta-musical and social issues.

DT: You sent me a transcript, and I wanted to check some things with my parents, since I had attributed various things to them. I brought them the transcript, and highlighted some things that I wanted to be sure that I was correct on, and some very interesting things came out. I have played violin since I was four, and apparently I had begged my parents to take violin lessons from the time that I was two and a half. That was what I had always understood. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that.
My parents had two friends, a husband and wife, who were a violinist and a cellist, and they would come by the house, and play chamber music, and apparently I just loved when they came to the house – that’s what triggered me to play the violin. But more specifically, this guy, Danny Slatkin, who was a biologist, also played fiddle tunes, and that’s what I really wanted – fiddle lessons, but out in eastern Long Island there was no way to get fiddle lessons. And so my parents got me started on regular violin lessons. But what is funny for me is that for forty years of my life I assumed that I wanted to play “violin”, when in fact the original impulse was based on fiddle tunes at the house.

©Dan Trueman

©Dan Trueman

TM: When I used to go play at Irish sessions, everyone who was there was Irish – they were there because their parents did it, and their grandparents had done it, and they did it. It was what they did as part of being Irish.
Let’s talk about what you have been up to over the last five years. How long have you been at Princeton?
DT: I’ve been there since 2003.

TM: …after some scrapping between the time you left from grad school and the time you came back.
DT: There were some interesting moments there. You probably remember my wife Monica, who is a guitarist. For a while she had sixty-five guitar students to help pay the bills, because I wasn’t doing very well in that regard….
I had a kind of a post-doc staff position at Columbia for a couple of years, and then I got a faculty position at Colgate before the opening came up at Princeton.

TM: Your work is so various that in trying to track it down on the net is a challenge. Take us through it all, please.
DT: It’s tough in dealing with things like Spotify and iTunes, in part because their categories and ways of searching are so lame – in part because everything is a “song”. I hope that whole world will become more sophisticated.
It is all over the map, but on some level it’s really all about a handful of specific people that I am working with. There’s So Percussion, which in terms of contemporary music ensembles is the one that I have worked the most with, and am closest with. Since we spoke last, I had a record with them come out two years ago, called “neither Anvil nor pulley,” a big forty-five minute piece that I wrote for them seven or eight years ago. I have worked with So since I met them in 2003, so that’s been a long-term relationship. They have succeeded the Brentano Quartet as the ensemble in residence at Princeton, which is an amazing and wonderful development. I think we can be proud in having gone outside the box in making an appointment like that. The ensemble of the string quartet seems to have a stranglehold on these ensemble-in-residence positions.

TM: No bureaucrat can get themselves in hot water because they hired a string quartet.
DT: The repertoire question is really interesting. With So, it’s all about new repertoire. The oldest stuff that they play is a little bit of Cage and a little bit of Reich. The rest is new, including stuff that they make themselves, which is a another interesting thing about a group like So, in that they write their own music as well as playing music by other composers, which is becoming more of thing with these amazing new ensembles that have been emerging over the last ten years.
To go back to your question about where all these projects come from, with So one of the things that is so exciting is that the conversations are much bigger conversations, very collaborative conversations, and the pieces that I have made I really feel like I have made with them. I sometimes feel like a fifth member of the band when I work with them, rather than an outsider.

TM: Like the lyricist for the Grateful Dead….
DT: Exactly! I am at the beginnings of a new project with them and the JACK Quartet. I want to work more with So, and they are close with the people in JACK. JACK are truly extraordinary, and in particular, they have the most sophisticated approach to tuning that I have ever encountered. That’s not meant to disparage other string quartets, but JACK has gone perhaps even over the deep end in a wonderful way, and so last week we had a workshop with the two groups together, and it was wonderful because there were so many different kinds of conversations going on. It felt like I was meeting a new group through an old group – making new friends through old friends.

©Dan Trueman

©Dan Trueman

That’s one thread. Another is Irish music, which goes back even further, to 2000. I met Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, who was about 19 at the time. He was an undergraduate in physics at Trinity College in Dublin, and my undergraduate degree was in physics – my father is a physicist – and Caoimhín, under some duress, was encouraged to do a summer internship in the States, and he ended up in my father’s group at Brookhaven, and while he was there he played a lunchtime concert. My Dad said, “You need to meet my son”, and so he arranged to have Caoimhín come to the house when I was back for a visit. So we met in my parent’s living room, the same room where the harpsichord and the clavichord and all those instruments that my parents built were, and are. We met, and played some tunes for each other. At that point he had not encountered the Hardanger fiddle before, and he responded quite strongly to the Hardanger fiddle. So we met, and then lost touch for a few years. We then re-met through Myspace, of all places, back in 2007….

TM: Back when there was a Myspace….
DT: He had just put out an absolutely gorgeous record, called Where the One-Eyed Man was King, and on it he is playing Hardanger fiddle. I was going to Belfast for a conference, and so I went down to Dublin, and we met again. Shortly thereafter he sent me a message saying “you have to go to this concert in New York next week. My good friend Iarla Ó Lionáird is performing a new piece by this crazy Irish composer named Donnacha Dennehy.” I had never heard of Donnacha or Iarla before. I went to the concert, which was a truly extraordinary concert. It was with The Crash Ensemble, from Ireland. Iarla and Crash did one of Donnacha’s pieces called Grá agus Bás (Love and Death). It’s a stunning piece – this was the US premiere, and it had only been done one time before. Donnacha’s composition is unlike anything else – gorgeous and powerful – Iarla’s singing is in the old style (Sean-nós), virtually all in Irish, or sometimes in songs that go back and forth between Irish and English.
It was a New Sounds Live show with John Schaefer – he was interviewing Donnacha during the break. I was struck by how Donnacha talked about music, and the creative process, about his relationships with other musicians, and the Crash Ensemble, which he had founded – I was impressed by him. I arranged to go to Dublin, so I could see Caoimhín again and meet Donnacha in person, and also meet Iarla. I had an absolutely fabulous time, and that led to a year living in Ireland on a Fulbright. I was hosted by Trinity College, where Donnacha was teaching at the time. That year has proven to be extraordinarily fruitful for me, because it helped to further establish these relationships with Caoimhín and also with Iarla, who I am doing a number of projects with, and also with Donnacha, who is now my colleague at Princeton. We managed to get him over through an international visiting scholar program that Princeton has. The year before he was here Paul Lansky retired, so we had the first search in composition at Princeton since I was hired. Many years. We were able to hire Donnacha and another younger composer, Juri Seo.
To draw this all together, it’s about working with people, and having these people introduce me to other people…. Caoimhín led me to Iarla and Donnacha. With Iarla right now I have done some works for him and orchestra which were premiered a couple years ago by the Concert Orchestra in Dublin. I am working on an enormous piece with him and the poet Paul Muldoon and the ensemble eighth blackbird, an evening-length piece which will premiere in a couple years. A lot of my time is spent working with Iarla. Along those lines, I came out with a record last year with Caoimhín. We started playing together in Dublin during that year. He’s over here a lot touring, and I was going back a fair bit, and we would always arrange to have a couple days together here and there to work on new material. That’s happening this weekend. Both he and Iarla are on tour with The Gloaming – a new supergroup from Ireland. Their tour ends Friday, and Caoimhín is coming to the house for the weekend, so we can work on some new material.
Caoimhín and I played a concert in February, and a couple of people from a sinfonietta called Contemporaneous were there, responded to it very strongly, and now they are commissioning a piece for Contemporaneous with Caoimhín as soloist. I love how one thing is leading to another through direct personal musical experiences. These worlds come together in interesting ways.

Last spring we had one of Caoimhín’s groups, This is How We Fly, a quartet, with Caoimhín, a clarinetist who plays laptop as well, a step dancer – a percussive dancer who is really a musical member of the ensemble, and a Swedish percussionist. They came and did a residency as part of what used to be called the Princeton Composers’ Ensemble, and is now called the Princeton Sound Kitchen. In that residency they collaborated with So Percussion on a couple of new pieces. My head was exploding when I had those two groups on the stage together! Most of my favorite musicians in the world on stage at the same time!

TM: Let me ask you some Irish questions. Is Caoimhín from the Gaeltacht?
DT: He’s not. He is from Dublin. Iarla is from the Gaeltacht down in west Cork. Irish is his first language. Caoimhín speaks Irish well, though.

TM: When you listen to Irish, the melody of the language just jumps out at you, and you think to yourself, OK, that’s where the music comes from. We never hear people speaking Irish, since the number of speakers is so small.
DT: The language is extraordinary, and I have been drawn to it ever since I was hearing Iarla sing in Irish, for a lot of reasons. One of the premises for the projects that Iarla and I have been working on is to work on what are called macaronic songs. That was a new word for me. These are songs that are in two languages. Often you will have a verse in English, and a verse in Irish, but the differences in meaning will be provocative, and also the way they sound, because though the melodies are the same, the way you sing it will be different because of the rhythm and contour of the language. And then there are some macaronic songs where you are given some information in one language, and other information in the other. Those are very interesting. For a non-Irish speaker, when you are listening, there are these wonderful moments of transition between hearing it just as sound, and then comprehending meaning. For a moment you are hearing English as though it is Irish, and not processing it in terms of the meaning. A lot of the work that we have been doing has been playing with the different meanings in the different languages, and just the different sounds. Paul Muldoon’s text for us is both Irish and English, so he’s built these moments of transition into the piece.
The question of how it relates to traditional Irish music is very interesting. I don’t know – the funny thing is that sean-nós singing is basically a solo art form. It tends to be rhythmically ambiguous – it might settle into these 6/8 meters, but often it is just following the flow of the language, whereas most of the traditional Irish music that we know, especially in America, is super-metered, in 6/8, or 4/4/, and really regimented. It doesn’t seem that Irish music was always that way, in fact, a lot of traditional Irish music seems to be a modern construction, from the fifties and sixties. Caoimhín worked at the Traditional Music Archives in Dublin for years, digitizing old recordings. He became obsessed with the old style of playing, the oldest possible recordings that you could find, in particular this area called Sliabh Luachra, which is down by the border between Kerry and Cork. There are beautiful styles of playing where both the rhythm and the meter become really ambiguous, and the tuning really gets wild – nothing equal-tempered about it. Lots of microtonal inflections, lots of having a finger s lo w l y press down on a string, so that the note speaks in a gritty, gorgeous, gradual way, rather than in a spot-on, rhythmic way. I hear a lot of the Uilleann pipes in that sort of playing, and it’s very easy to hear connections between the melodic style of the Uilleann pipes and sean-nós singing. It would be tempting to overstate the connections, but there are clearly things that are inspired by one language, one instrument, and then taken up by another.

TM: If you look at Irish music that is transmitted in written notation from two centuries ago, there are so many slow airs which are clearly not meant to be metrical at all, and there are very elaborate ornamentations which are also clearly not meant to be metrical. They are just out there. This is the music that is the most difficult to recreate, because you have to drawn on something within yourself.
DT: Caoimhín has learned these slow airs from the recordings of the piper Willie Clancy. They are just stunningly gorgeous.

TM: To take it in a more metaphysical direction, how does it feel for someone with Nordic roots to be connecting with Celtic culture in Ireland?
DT: I am a mutt, as most of us Americans are –my mother is half Norwegian, half Swedish, and I have been aware of that for a long time because of playing the Hardanger fiddle, and so on, although I didn’t discover that through my family. But it turns out that my dad is mostly Irish. When we went to Ireland in 2010, my mom found this old immigration certificate for my father’s great-grandfather, who had arrived in the 1850s from County Tyrone, had immediately been conscripted into Lincoln’s army, as one of Lincoln’s guard. So I have this certificate with the name Trueman on it.
I can’t say I have substantial familial connections to Ireland – I didn’t grow up in a family where there was singing around the table every night. My wife, Monica, did. My parents didn’t identify as Scandinavian OR Irish, but I am discovering that they actually were.
The instrument seems to be the key here. Iarla has a joke that he tells when we are performing together, especially to Irish audiences, saying that there is a fatwa on my head from the traditional Irish community for having introduced the Hardanger fiddle to Irish music. There’s a lot of cultural stuff that is happening just through the instrument itself. Caoimhín doesn’t play Scandinavian music on it at all. For him, in fact, I think he hears the pipes on that instrument – the resonating strings. The Hardanger fiddle was a sound that he was after that he didn’t have a way to get until he had it. The instrument is a way to a sound that is not bound to a particular culture or tradition.

TM: You can’t have your authentic voice until you find the thing that speaks that voice for you.
Another Irish question: if you were to put one hundred musicologists in a room, and force them to reveal whether they had heard a single piece of Irish classical music, “concert” music, of any sort, from the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century, I would wager that zero would have heard anything by any Irish composer, except, perhaps, for Arthur Sullivan, who we not think of as an Irish composer. What do you hear when you listen to contemporary Irish classical music? Not names, but the sound. What does it evoke for you?
DT: I don’t disagree with you. Somebody like Gerald Barry, who is not well known in the USA, but is well known in Europe – I don’t think of him as an Irish composer, whereas Seán Ó Riada is very much identified as Irish. It’s true – Irish music is very much on the margins. Today, in the last ten or fifteen years, I think that this is changing, in that the presence of Ireland is on the rise, internationally. Some of that is to Donnacha’s credit. He did his doctorate at Illinois, and his undergraduate work at Trinity College, Dublin. He also studied at IRCAM with some of the spectralists, and when he went back, he started the CRASH Ensemble, because he felt that there was not such an ensemble, not only in Ireland, but in Europe as a whole. One of the things about Donnacha’s music, and a lot of Irish music that I am hearing, is that it really is being pulled, on the one hand, by the proximity and presence of Europe, but also that they are out in the Atlantic, and they are looking west all the time. The power of the American esthetic, experimentalism, minimalism, Cage, Reich, things like that, are very much part of the awareness there. Ireland, always having been suppressed to various degrees, has always been looking west, and you hear that in the music. Donnacha, and Linda Buckley, who studied with Donnacha, a really wonderful younger composer coming out of Ireland – for all them, yes, there are European traditions that are part of who we are, but there’s also this energy, this openness that they feel that American music affords them. Minimalism has a influence there. In mainland Europe, they might appreciate minimalism, but it’s hard for them to actually do it, or absorb it. I am hearing music with an incredibly broad variety of influences coming out of Ireland right now. And some of it is coming from their own traditional music’s lyrical history. Donnacha’s piece – the piece that really changed the kind of music that he was playing and put him on the map – is the one that I mentioned – Grá agus Bás. To me, a different piece that anything that he had done before, imbued with the presence of traditional Irish music in a way that he had never done before, and that frankly, it took a lot of guts to do – both from the contemporary music perspective (“oh, you’re doing folk tunes”) and from the traditional music scene in Ireland, which is super powerful. This piece was very controversial there. There’s a looking west and east, but also a looking inward, about a lot of Irish music now.
It’s true, it’s been on the fringes, and not the radar, but I think that is changing, and is going to be changing for a while.

TM: When we met fifteen years ago, what stood out for me was precisely your interested in Northern European folk traditions, and in my experience that was something that had been completely outside the academy. The academy is great at putting things outside the circle. Even Shostakovich was outside. Rock and roll was outside, jazz was outside…in 2000, jigs and reels were completely outside. Do you feel like they are getting more inside, or is that just your microclimate?
DT: It’s hard to say. Princeton is an unusual place, and I sometimes mistake what is going on in our department in comparison with other institutions. My sense is that in our department, among the faculty for the most part, among the grad students in composition, and among the musicologists that I know, is that there is an incredibly omnivorous spirit. It’s not about excluding , picking, choosing – people want everything. How do you decide what you spend your time on when you love so much?
I got an email from a grad student about tickets for The Gloaming in New York, and it turns out that several of our grad students are going to see The Gloaming. They are a folk music band. In the next few years, there might be the beginnings of an Irish session in town, in part because of students coming into our program, who want a real session to play in every week. I am hoping that happens – I would love to be part of that.
Yes, it’s really different now, and I don’t think anyone in the department thinks twice about whether you are engaging with any other kind of music. It’s assumed that you are into all kinds of music. Maybe the trickiest part of all this is how the work is presented. You think about “the concert hall” or a “program” – you have a string quartet playing a piece, and it is in the printed program, and you have a singer performing, as one of our graduate students does now, in a Ukrainian folk style, and there are these moments when you realize “wow, we are going shockingly from one world to another.” Someone speaking from the stage – that used to be a no-no – at a Composers’ Ensemble concert, the notion of someone speaking directly from the stage to the audience was really kind of uncouth. Some people still don’t want to do it, but others think “this is what we do –we talk to the audience about what we are going to play. We introduce who we are playing with.” If there is awkwardness, it comes at these moments when people from these different scenes are right up next to each other.

TM: I know where you were fifteen years ago. Where will you be musically fifteen years from now? Do you have any idea?
DT: I don’t. When I was a grad student, before I went to Princeton, I remember that I was having a conversation with another student, a music theorist, who was expressing frustration with me. He said, “I like what you are doing, but I don’t get any sense of vision from you…what are you going to be doing – what is your big plan?” I said, “I don’t have one – I am just following my nose, and my ears, and my hands” – and I still very much feel that way. To talk about something specific, just last month I had a new record come out of piano music. It’s a piano that I made, a prepared digital piano, but you listen to it, and it sounds like piano music. I never would have imagined, five years ago that I was going to be making a record of …. “piano music.” And it’s one of the most exciting things I have ever done, and I know that project is going to be with me for some time. To try to answer your question, one thing that has happened for me, and that is a product of having started the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, and having worked with So Percussion, is that I have had to learn to build things that other people can play with computers. Before PLOrk, and before neither Anvil Nor pulley, my work with computers consisted of building things for myself to improvise, to play with Curtis Bahn, and Tomie Hahn, and I loved this, building one’s own instrument, not something that you would give to anyone else – but with the Laptop Orchestra I had to build things for other people to play, and put them through a process of refinement, commit to certain decisions, in order to make something that I could then teach somebody else how to play. For me that hit its first musical peak when I made these instruments for So Percussion to play, and has reached a new one now with this piano record. We made it into an app that you can get on the App Store – there will be an iPhone version. You can plug a little keyboard into your phone, buy a five-dollar app, and play this music, or explore the app and make your music with the instrument. For me that’s a huge transition. I suspect in ten/fifteen years this app will still be around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be others. But the design of those instruments is very much following my ears to what is most musically inspiring.
I have my fiddles hanging on my wall in the studio, ready and waiting for me to play, temptation hanging on the walls, and they set a high bar for musical engagement. Any new app has to be at least as musical inspiring as they are. This new piano instrument is set up in my studio, and it is so much, in a different way than the fiddles. If I’m lucky, maybe I will find another instrument like that, and I will be making music with it.

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