Interview with Camden Reeves
What's the most exciting thing about being a composer writing now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
That I am a slightly better composer than I was in the twentieth century.
Until comparatively recently, audiences listened almost solely to the contemporary classical music of their time. Now that we perform such a broad range of music, do you think the contemporary audience has become more specialised, and does that affect your writing in a any way?
If an artist has something to say, says it with intent, with sincerity, clarity and without pretention… people will listen, and it makes no difference how many or who they are.
If you could go for coffee with any composer born before 1900, who would it be, and what would you ask them?
Franz Liszt – ‘Would you like to perform some of my piano pieces?’
To aid their writing, Beethoven liked his long walks in the Vienna woods, Brahms liked his Austrian lakes, and Satie was fond of the odd absinthe. What does it for you?!?
The creative process is inherently chaotic and disorganized. Inspiration can come from anywhere. But to write, to actually capture the ideas, one needs routine.
Don’t believe the myths about Beethoven. Beethoven’s country walks were part of that routine, as was lunch, the daily paper and when he had finished for the day…beer!
Do you have any personality traits that you consider to be peculiar to composers?
Where did you grow up and did the local landscape have a bearing on your music?
For five years life was in Texas. Developing an imagination was necessary to maintain sanity.
What was your most inspiring/memorable musical experience as a young musician growing up?
Beethoven’s Symphony no.5 op.67.
You describe how the music of 'Dead Broke Blues Break' "weaves jazz and blues materials together into a complex rhythmic network". In a latter section, the cellist even performs a potentially genre-busting, pizzicato cadenza in the manner of a rock guitar solo!?!
Did you have any particular blues or rock musicians and solos in mind when you were writing this work? Are there any other influences in the mix?
In terms of material this passage is more like a jazz bass solo. But yes, the structure was inspired by the temporal strategy of the Led Zeppelin track ‘Heartbreaker’. Like many Zeppelin tracks, the structure is tight, highly original and projects forwards in musical time. It ratchets up tension through an ascending sequence of pitch centres, which ultimately ‘break’ apart into a gigantic unaccompanied guitar solo. The Dead Broke Blues Break builds tension not through a series of pitch centres, but through a network of accelerating pulse ladders. The final one moves towards the limits of what is possible, in terms of speed, at which point the pizzicato cello solo breaks out.
We have often performed your first Piano Trio, 'Starlight Squid' and are always fascinated by how it conveys a vivid picture of the underwater iridescence of this extraordinary creature, whilst also being guided strictly by the theme of the 'Ave Maris Stella' plainchant, in the manner of a cantus firmus. It's a heady mixture of sensationalism and rigorous technique!
Is this achieved as a result of your approach as expressed in your mantra 'Heart and head: Intuition and Intellect'?
All that matters in music is realizing a creative vision. Peter Cropper of the Lindsays (former colleagues of mine at Manchester) once said in a seminar that, ‘technique is nothing more or less than the ability to get what’s in here [points to head] out there [points into space]’. He’s right.
The new work, 'Dead Broke Blues Break' paints an aural picture of listening to a rather scratched, old jazz record. When you put it on the turntable, "a sort of music comes out, something vaguely resembling the blues: but it’s all wrong. The stylus jumps forwards and backwards across the twisted grooves. The beats are bent, the melodies mangled, the tempo erratic".
How do you create these sensations for the listener?
Harmonically it employs various modes derived from Jazz and blues scales. Rhythmically there is a network of different, but related, tempi. The temporal strategy is to set things up then break them.
Do you feel that music is a reflection of your conscious self - the 'self' which those close to you would describe as 'composer's name'?! Or does your music allow you to access a self which is 'other' in some way?
Sounds like a question for Carl Jung. Music works in a way that cannot be explained verbally. Wittgenstein distinguished between two kinds of knowledge: knowledge about facts and knowledge through doing. You can’t really understand music by talking about it. You need to do it.
If finance and time were no obstacle (ha ha!), what piece would you write next and where would you go to write it?
Something to be played in outer space. I think Stockhausen was going in the right direction with that helicopter piece.
What message or advice would you give to the next generation of composers?
First - Throw away your computer.
Second - When Socrates visited the Oracle at Delphi, inscribed above the entrance was the motto, ‘know thyself’. Discover whether you are an artist or an entertainer. If you are an artist, resist the pressure to be assessable, to be commercial, to be fashionable and to be liked. If you are an entertainer, that’s fine (we all like to be entertained), but please spare the rest of us all the claptrap about elitism and accessibility in trying to make use more like you.
What would be your top 5 desert island discs?
Five copies of the Lawson Trio’s new CD