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A Conversation with Alejandro Rutty


Composer Alejandro Rutty has been living and working in North Carolina for almost a decade now. An earlier conversation with Rutty appeared in Sonograma in 2012, in number 16. Since then he has two vocal and/or choral works focusing on the North Carolina experience – Down Home: The Cantata, and The Other Side of My Heart, as well as additional purely instrumental compositions.

Could you talk about the very beginnings of how the Cantata project got started? Who was the motivating force getting it underway?
Eric Meyers, who is the director of the North Carolina Jewish Heritage Foundation….

and the director of the department of Jewish Studies at Duke.
They have an exhibit on the history of Jewish life in North Carolina, which has all sorts of different media. One is a video, one is a book by Leonard Rogoff, and there is a museum exhibit. Eric thought that it would be a good idea to have a cantata. He sings in the Triangle Jewish Chorale, and they started to commission this piece to be premiered by the TJC, in which I would use some of this historical material. In fact, I have done work in the past in which recorded voices get integrated into the piece of music, rather than just transcribing the text, and having that text sung. The archive has lots of recordings of oral histories, and that’s what started the conversations about the format. My idea was to incorporate not just the content, but also the actual sound of those recordings.
sonograma-Headshot2RuttyI scanned hundreds of hours of recordings, and tried to find a coherent narrative. What we have in the piece is the choir interacting with people telling their own, and their own families’ stories.

The piece was first performed in 2013. How long before that had the planning started?
About a year before. It took a year to put together.

How did you choose to shape the narrative? What was the arc that you chose?
To begin with, I narrowed everything down to the most compelling stories. We also conducted some interviews ourselves to advance that narrative into the present. What is compelling is not only what is being said, but how it is said. The piece is in seven movements. The first movement is about immigration, having to with arrival from Russia, Poland, wherever people are coming from – the first moment of the American experience. The second piece has to do with earlier times – the 19th century, stories about carts, and buggies, the little store, and that goes up to the early 20th century. The second and third go into that. Setting up businesses – how was the interaction with the traditional white Protestant establishment in North Carolina? It also touches on race relations between Jews and blacks, Jewish storeowners employing blacks…it’s really interesting. The fourth movement is about the religious experiences – how is the religious aspect of Judaism experience by Jewish families in North Carolina? The fifth movement deals with the hardships of Jewish life during the depression, with a mixture of poverty and discrimination. The subtext is that this movement is all based on one person’s account, and that person has a particularly strong Southern accent. With all the things that have been mentioned it’s clear that this person is a true son, that a new home has been claimed. The sixth movement is the story of a survivor of the Kindertransport escape from Germany, the seventh is a letter to an immigrant who became the first Cone in North Carolina.

Looking back on it, and having participated in it, it reminds me in some ways of Porgy and Bess, where you have a Jewish composer writing about an ethnic community in South Carolina, and the end of it is the Exodus, the departure from the South, but it has these aspects of economic life, and religious life. We have this presence of Jews for a long time, and we identify South Carolina with certain aspects of black music, and certain aspects of white music, connected with the mountains, but we don’t have a Jewish music from North Carolina.
One of the things that we mentioned in conversations with Eric, and something that I wanted to highlight musically, is that the Jewish experience is global. Yes, there is klezmer, music from different Jewish subcultures, but you have Jewish Argentine tango composers, and Jewish life pretty much everywhere. I wanted to go that route, rather than saying that “Jewish music sounds this way”. I am not an insider, so what I can bring to the table is diversity rather than a straightforward Jewishness of style, for which there might be other composers with more tools.

One of the moments that I found very striking was the movement with the tenor solo, and the chorus in response, and the text is about growing up in the Depression in a small Jewish community in Durham. Please say something about your musical imagination for that movement.
The first thing is that the storytelling is extremely important there – it’s obviously a story that Gibby Katz has been telling for years, it’s clear that it has been rehearsed, and improved over time, to be theatrical, and I love that. And it’s very Southern. Someone unaware of the Jewish presence in the South would never guess that this is what a Jewish person would sound like. When we went on the radio with a Jewish producer from New York, they said “I didn’t know that a Jewish person could sound like this…”
In the piece there is a little of everything – some hints of traditional Jewish music, but a great deal of North Carolina/Southern/Appalachian overtones, and, because it’s global, some Brazilian rhythms, even others, all mixed up…in ways that they are not clearly identifiable, and become a soup. The choir likes that piece a lot, and it’s probably the hardest of all of them.

The “Kindertransport” movement evokes for me a timeless quality, a sort of frozen-in-time view of this event.
It’s a long story, and I didn’t want the music to intrude on the narration. When you compose with text, and you have a lot of text, and you need to understand the coherence of what the text is saying, and the text requires your full attention, you have to put less into the music, and it becomes some sort of emotional backdrop for the story that happens in the foreground. You see that a lot in movie music. I wanted music that was not intruding on the narrative – it just accent some of the emotional tones of what is a very harrowing story that starts with Gestapo agents kidnaping the eleven-year-old child’s father, and the child taking the train alone to England, living with a foster-family, and then looking back…

Please say a little about the continuing life of this piece – we had three performance venues in North Carolina in 2013. Have there been subsequent performances?
Yes. It was performed in Wilmington, North Carolina, and some movements of it were performed in Buenos Aires this year. I am still trying to see if more choirs will brave the piece.

Let’s talk about the Piano Concerto.
There is a Dutch pianist, Vincent van Gelder, who lives here in North Carolina, who wanted a concerto, and he’s a really good pianist. When you have a piano concerto, and it’s not beingpromoted  by a big organization, the piece is not being played. So I thought “Can I narrow down my music so it can be played by fewer instruments, and still be able to express what the music is? Or am I trapped into having to have large forces?” I first wrote the piano concerto in a quartet version – piano, percussion, bass, and cello or viola. That allowed us to record and perform the pieces several times, and to tweak it in ways one cannot do with the typical orchestral rehearsal schedule. We played it a number of times – sometimes I like to pretend that I play percussion, which I don’t – and I played the percussion part –  – I wanted to be inside the music making on that piece. The work is called Cantabile Hop, it’s groove-based, and it’s incredibly difficult for the piano. It’s a lot of fun to play for all the parts. Then we had the chance to premiere the piece under another name (which is actually Piano Concerto), with Vincent and the UNCG Symphony. Now we are about to do a recording, in which the bass part will not be upright bass, but electric bass, which I do play. It’s a piece that has some sort of crossover appeal. It’s really pianistic. For twenty years I have not composed for piano, and I wanted to write something for piano that was really pyrotechnical. This one is. Whether people like the piece or not, they always say “wow, the piano writing is so nice….”

Why would you not write for piano for twenty years?
First, I don’t like it when people write for piano, and the piano does not sound well. You have to measure your skills against people like Ravel, and Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, andLigeti. They get their pianos to sound great. The other thing is: can I fit my music into an instrument that has these characteristics. For many years, because of the kind of music that I was writing, the answer was no. The best vehicles for my music were groups with like instruments – string quartets, saxophone quartets, or larger ensembles, where I can put echos, reverberations, the things that I was doing for a number of years. Now, with where my music has gone, piano becomes a viable vehicle. So I wrote the concerto, and I have just finished a piano solo piece, a genre in which I have never written, for my friend Sally Todd. I haven’t heard it yet, but I am pretty happy.

I am reminded of another composer I spoke to, who said that it was a conceptual breakthrough to write things that he couldn’t personally play for piano, that he didn’t want to be limited to writing things that didn’t feel awkward in his fingers…
I really want everything in the score to be playable, even though it might take a lot of work. In the communication with the musician, there has to be a path to victory. I understand what New Complexity proponents bring, and a certain type of performer really enjoys that, but I want to make sure that I am trusted, in the way that you trust everything that Stravinsky writes. Sometimes things in Stravinsky’s score are odd, and you think that it can’t be right, but if you look in detail you realizes that, yes, it is so specific and so clear that it can be done as he said. It creates a sense of trust, helps guide the practice, and people spend more time practicing than performing (or they should) and so I want to have that communication, because eventually that transfers to the performers, and eventually to the public, too.

You have mentioned four composers for the piano. When you were thinking about “what is a piano concerto?” were there pieces floating around in your subconscious?
I went through the whole repertoire. I thought this concerto would be more like an old-time bandleader and his band, rather than the opposing forces of piano and orchestra, where they fight each other. There’s no conflict – it’s the bandleader who brings the music, and the backup band, who understand what the bandleader wants.

Is the “Rhapsody in Blue” bandleader and band in this sense?
Yes, that would be one. Another, from the classical repertoire, would be Ravel’s Concerto in G, which is more about the piano playing the music, and the orchestra cooperating.

Please say a little about the new piano solo piece.
I am interested in how much information I can pack in, that is, how much depth the writing can have, without sounding busy. It’s very easy to pack in a lot of information when your music is really busy. Now I am interested in getting a lot of information in, but with a texture that is sparser – allowing space to happen. On the surface this piece has some echoes of Gismonti in terms of the rhythmic activity and harmonies, but is sparser, in comparison to the music of my younger years, when, by definition, there were a lot of things happening.

I think it is interesting that you mention Gismonti. That’s a name that I know, and a name that you know, but I would be willing to bet that if you walked down the halls at UNCG, no one else would know who this is. Are there other composers who are important for you but who do not fall into the group of composers who are prominent in 2015?
Yes, always, but I include Gismonti within the vast world of world music, which is part of my background, and my listening experience. Surely, my listening set is different than other people’s, which gets into the fabric of the music.

What is the title of the solo piece?

Why this title?
Qualia is the sensation we have of something which is independent of its physical qualities. In this piece, that is what actually happens – a series of perceived events, expressively speaking, as opposed to actual events. A transition, for example, could be described as an “escape to a new reality”. The music is following, expressively, the metaphoric or experiential version of the reality that the piece is proposing. That is actually in the score, as some sort of guide to what you are playing right now, and it is written in experiential language – like “departure” or “finally being transported”.

Let’s talk about the work about Latina voices – The Other Side of My Heart.
Lorena Guillen wanted to do a piece that was somewhat similar in concept to the Down Home Cantata, in the sense that there is an oral history, and a series of audio interviews being conducted, and that material makes it into the piece. She had been working on a project regarding female tango composers of the 20s and 30s, so she was interested in exploring the experiences of women immigrants in the US, more specifically, in North Carolina. She interviewed a number of Latina women, and the interviews were quite diverse, from successful professionals to undocumented immigrants, and everything in between, and tried to see what was in common and what was different in all those interviews. Those interviews were very touching and very revealing.
There are five songs, and each is preceded by a collage from the interviews. The lyrics of each song were verbatim the words of the women whose voices we heard before the song. It was a project for the Lorena Guillen Tango Ensemble, so I wanted to write something pretty much in popular, vernacular music, with some crossover  – percussion, bass, violin, piano, and voice. In those songs there is a variety of Latin American styles mixed up in such a way that they are not always clearly identifiable.   It has been performed a few times, and we have more performances ahead. Lorena has bigger plans – a recording, a website with longer versions of the interviews, some community input. Another element: we have Felipe Troncoso,  a photographer who did photos to accompany the piece.

Do you feel like you are an insider for this piece (as you were not for Downhome).
Latin America is big and very diverse, so I am outsider to many of those experiences. This is also centered on women’s experiences, where I am an outsider too, but one of the points of connection between the Downhome cantata and this project is that I am also an immigrant, and that is something that kept me connecting at the personal level, but the truth I could also feel at home writing about the life of Martians on Jupiter – it’s my job to try to understand what is being said, and how to enhance it musically. In that way, it might even be an advantage not to be clouded by your own experiences, so you can think clearly, and write effectively.

…why is why you can write a piece on the future of tango, in which the future is on Mars. What’s the next big piece on the agenda?
I am writing a piece for the DC Youth Orchestra Program.   So far all my orchestral pieces are extremely demanding, even for professional orchestras.  I wanted to see if my music can be expressed in a piece that can be played successfully by a youth orchestra. They have a very good program, but I want a piece that can be played, not only by the DC Youth orchestra, but also by other orchestras. Can I write such a piece, and still have it be my music, as I want it, in the same way as writing successful reductions of pieces for larger forces. For example, last year I did a reduction of Future for Tango for quintet. In this case, can I come up with the expression I want in this setting?

When is the premiere?
In the fall.

Who is the commissioning conductor?
Mariano Vales, and the DC Youth Orchestra.

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