Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Conversation with Gregory Spears

Annalisa had the pleasure of meeting with NYC-based composer Gregory Spears recently. His opera Fellow Travelers was featured in Cincinnati Opera’s Opera Fusion: New Works workshop last week. She met him during the workshop and learned that he has a passion for early music and working with performers who specialize in early music.
Spears studied at Eastman and later went to the Royal Academy in Copenhagen on a Fulbright. One summer he worked at the Spoleto Festival as a stagehand for a Baroque orchestra when they were performing Cavalli’s Giasone with Harry Bickett. That’s when he fell in love with early music. Afterwards he got his Master’s degree at Yale, then a Ph.D. at Princeton. He currently teaches theory and composition at the Third Street Music School Settlement, which is the oldest community music school in NYC. This spring he will teach a class at Princeton called “Music and Madness.”
Most of Spears’ time is spent writing music on commission. He was recently in Miami, where he was commissioned to complete the Mozart Requiem for Seraphic Fire, a group who frequently performs early music. He also did a restoration of a Prokofiev ballet (under the guidance of musicologist Simon Morrison) for the Mark Morris Dance Company, is completing the opera Wolf in Skins for a Baroque orchestra, composed a commissioned song for Opera America, and is now finishing the opera Fellow Travelers.  One of his pieces will be performed on December 10 in Cincinnati by the Jack Quartet for Chamber Music Cincinnati as well. (www.cincychamber.org)
The following is paraphrased from their conversation.

My fantasy is to join the forces of new music and early music. This is the moment to do it! 

What is it about new music and early music that works for me? The revival of Handel opera and the excitement around newer operas like those of John Adams coincided, and their listeners had something in common. They liked a different type of drama and experience than traditional Verdi opera.  Today there are many fine early musicians, and it is less of a niche. You are also more likely to find musicians who can play Baroque period music AND Wagner AND contemporary music. Musicians have to be more versatile these days. There is never a cultural barrier in working with early musicians. They are looking for phrasing and affect of music, rather than waiting for words on the page (like dolce) to tell them how to play. It is thrilling to give musicians permission to connect with a new piece, as if it were an old piece.

I love working with singers. There is a special something about the type of sound of an early music singer. It’s paradoxical: The voice can sound almost like an electronic instrument with very little vibrato, but at the same time it has a deep soul.  The singer’s relationship to text is different too—the practice of musique mesurĂ©e was a fascinating moment in music history.  I am also very interested in the medieval practice of chant and in the use of the drone with music. The result of all these elements is music as both text and pure sound continuum.  

Period instruments are also great, and working with them is a very “vocal” experience. The challenge is that you really have to have the right venue. Period instruments are completed by their performing space. They collaborate with their acoustic. A black box theatre is not as successful as a live acoustical space.

What are the challenges of writing for early music instruments? Well, for instance you can’t write for a piano without considering what was written for it and why. That conversation with the history of an instrument interests me. You can figure who you are by looking through the lens of tradition.
I like working with traditional liturgical texts. While I am not an overtly religious person, I like working out of that tradition. Liturgical music has an electric charge - the infinite versus the finite (the human).

For more information on Gregory Spears’ music, visit his website at www.gregoryspears.com.

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