Discourses in Music: Volume 6 Number 2 (Spring-Summer 2007)

Interview with Christopher Pierce, 23 Jan 2006

By Roger Mantie

Christopher Pierce was recently awarded the Karen Kieser prize for his composition, Melody with Gesture. The Karen Kieser prize is awarded to a graduate student in composition at the University of Toronto, in memory of Karenís lifelong dedication to Canadian music. Christopher was featured, along with the other four recipients of the prize to date, in a concert at Glen Gould Studio on January 31, 2007. The week prior to the concert I was fortunate enough to sit down with Christopher and talk with him about his thoughts on music, composition, and on being a contemporary classical composer. Originally from Phoenix, Christopher came to Toronto to pursue doctoral studies with Gary Kulesha, having completed a Masterís degree at the Peabody Conservatory, where he studied with Christopher Theofanidis and Nicholas Maw.

M: What does composition do for you that playing the guitar doesnít?

P: I love the guitar and I still play, I just donít think that was my path. When I made the switch to composition [in university] I started writing more and more and I felt much more gratified. So there was a certain gratification that came with writing that didnít happen with the guitar.

M: So composition came to you once you were in university. Do you think composition should be taught in public schools?

P: Yes. That would be great.

M: How come more of that hasnít happened?

P: Well I would say why not more music in general? But composition in particular is definitely highly, highly neglected. I would assume that those that are in the education system or making those decisions either: a) are completely ignorant of it; or b) donít care.

M: I read a study that said that the two things music teachers most fear teaching are composition and improvisation. What do you think the benefits of teaching composition would be?

P: I think it would greatly benefit composers. But at this point I may even settle for just a good basic music education system Ė when you think about it, music is a language just like English or French. Could you imagine someone entering college and they can barely read? Surprisingly, you find that a lot, even with music majors. You get them in a theory class and they just have no idea what theyíre doing. Thatís the equivalent of being illiterate. So I think by educating the young it would greatly, greatly impact the future of music. A lot of musicians do get educated, but they do it privately. I think by having it in the public system you would have this outpouring of people that may have never experienced classical music before take an interest in it.

M: Who do you write your music for?

P: Well, I guess Iíd have a different response depending on who Iím writing for at the time. Essentially whoever Ė I like to work with musicians very closely. Thatís something Iíve grown to enjoy. So I work closely with ensembles, I get to know them very personally and I try to write specifically for them.

M: So on a project by project basis?

P: Yes, very much so.

M: You write for musicians. What about the listeners?

P: That gets into a big grey area, and every composer has their own opinion. You know, you can justify your music in so many different ways. Some composers completely ignore the audience and write what they feel like writing and leave the audience to catch up to what theyíre doing Ė which I personally donít care for. I guess at this point I write music that I enjoy writing, that I would want to listen to, and I feel is meaningful. I would hope that there is something Ė no matter what it is Ė that will resonate with the audience.

M: What would you want your listeners to get from your music?

P: Thatís a difficult question Ė but without stepping on anyoneís toes Ė I would say that I would like for them to feel transformed, to feel moved in some capacity Ė whether itís emotionally or intellectually Ė after the performance. Everyone is going to approach it differently. Hopefully theyíve gained something walking out [of the performance].

M: In terms of your own listening, what sorts of things do you listen to?

P: I am extremely diverse in my listening. This morning I was listening to death metal; it runs the gamut. It also depends on what Iím doing at the moment, what my intentions are for the music Iím listening too. I think different music has different functions. For example, if I am cooking dinner Ė this might be just me Ė I donít what to listen to Ligeti, or at least very rarely would. When Iím listening to Ligeti I want to sit down and really concentrate. I think concert music has a different function. So I listen to everything.

M: What music has influenced you as a composer?

P: Everything Iíve ever heard. Itís hard to pinpoint. I mean there are certain composers that I really like but I donít necessary sound anything like them. I think every time I hear something, or look at a score Ė even pop music, jazz Ė I learn from it. Iím influenced by virtually everything I hear, see and do. Iíve given up on trying to emulate. I think itís kind of like Ė youíll love this: itís kind of like the Force. Youíve got to forget about what everyone is telling you and how you feel like you should write and just write what feels comfortable and go with it.

M: So what are some of your favourite composers?

P: Classical?

M: It doesnít have to be.

P: I would say Ligeti, I like Christopher Rouse a lot, Dutilleux. I also like Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright, Ron Sexsmith, Debussy, Ravel Ė I canít forget Ravel. I mean thereís just so many, far too many to mention.

M: What do you see as the similarities or differences between the composition you do and that of the singer/songwriters?

P: I would say that the differences are in function and intent. Ron Sexsmith is great in a bar Ė you know, in that kind of environment. So it functions much more as entertainment - it has a different intent than concert music. So in other words, take a work by Beethoven ĖItís not going to work as well in the same environment. I think theyíre very different in the way you experience them. I also think the recording industry has had a tremendous impact on all genres of music. Whereas I think itís extremely beneficial for pop music, it can actually work against concert music which is facing an audience that would rather sit at home and listen to a CD than go to a live performance. Along that same line, often times theyíre not great musicians, whereas if you look at classical music, the musicianship is very high.

M: Has recording technology and technology in general impacted on what you do?

P: I donít think very much. I have a strong belief that my music should be experienced live. But of course it has helped in several capacities. In the past it would have been impossible for someone in China to hear what Liszt was doing, whereas now itís very simple, you just log right in to the net and you can hear things instantly from anywhere in the world. So I do think there is a value to technology. Computer programs like Finale have also had a tremendous impact on composers.

M: Pen and paper or computer?

P: I do both, obviously. I always start on paper and then I transfer it to the computer. Itís very difficult for me to just write into the computer.

M: With the power of technology, it is possible to Ďcomposeí without using notation. What do you think about that? You can be a writer of music now without notation.

P: Yes. Most of the music world doesnít use notation. Itís only a small minority that does. On the other hand, I think itís extremely important to be literate.

M: Like notationally literate?

P: Yes. In order for music to progress and mature there must be a written form. But I thought you talked about technology?

M: Yes. Because of technology, it really is possible to write music without notational abilities.

P: I still find it necessary. It is beginning to become an issue with composers who produce computer generated music. Although, I have little experience in the field, so I am probably not the right person to answer that question.

M: How important is the score? I was listening to Melody with Gesture in my office looking at the score while my wife was working in the other room. She told me she really liked what she heard [my wife is also a musician]. Iím guessing that our experiences were probably very different.

P: I donít think that the score has any importance to the listener. Of course without the score you have no ďwork,Ē but I think as far as the music itself you donít need it. In fact, I prefer listening without looking at the score, and then if it appeals to me Iíll go back and look at it. But the score is essentially a vehicle for sound. Thatís by far the most important thing.

M: For juried competitions they always seem to require the score. Do you think they should?

P: It depends on the competition. I think in a lot of cases you have to because of, letís say, in instances that itís never been performed. Then youíd have to rely on the score alone. The other difficulty is letís say you have a great piece Ė and it happens quite often that you have a very bad performance. That doesnít necessarily mean that the piece is bad. Itís difficult to answer, because in an ideal world weíd all have them expertly performed just as we would like, but that doesnít necessarily happen. But the other way around, all too often they take a look Ė I think things are changing Ė but it used to be that theyíd look at the score, and if looks really complicated then it would be put in the Ďyesí pileÖ But if it didnít look modern enough it would go in the Ďnoí pile, and thatís how they sort of divide it: how black and how dense the score is. But I think things are changing. It goes either way. There are pluses and minuses to both.

P: I noticed on the scores from your website that you use an eighth note time signature a lot. Iím curious about that.

M: Yes, Iím leaning more and more towards that. Itís very difficult to read constantly changing meters as I often use. Especially with my music, itís very nonmetrical, so itís very difficult to be able to feel where the beat is, where itís happening. And yet I have a very definite idea of how it should be put together and how it should be put on to the page. So a lot of times I will go down to what it is subdivided by. For example, if Iím writing a piece and the first three bars are 4/4, 3/4, 6/4 Ė and the next bar is 5/8, then I will actually retroactively go back and see if thereís some way to change everything else. And thereís actually a control factor that I have found. By working with smaller divisions you can do more technical things and itís not so abstract. You know where a thirty-second note is when youíre thinking with eighth notes. With quarter notes it can be a bit more abstract.

M: But then, the 32nd note is to the eighth note as 16th is to the quarter, right?

P: Yes. So youíre thinking just switch it? Iíd have to look at the score.

M: Obviously Iím not a composer, so Iím asking these questions as more of a performer or my teaching/conducting role when youíre responsible for putting pieces together. So Iím thinking of examples where pieces have been, in my opinion, written in the wrong time signature from a reading standpoint. Pieces written in 4/4 that would be easier to read if they were written in cut time, for example.

P: Yes, yes. It very well could be. It could be just a quirk that Iíve developed, because almost all of my music written recently uses the eighth. One other thing: it also greatly depends on the forces that youíre writing for. My orchestral music very rarely uses the eighth. With larger ensembles itís much more difficult to put together.

M: Melody with Gesture does not use standard instrumentation. A woodwind quintet, string quintet, percussion and voice is not a typical combination. What guided your choices on that one?

P: That piece I was actually asked to write for the NAC, So I had a set instrumentation. They used the Orchestre de la francophonie canadienne led by Jean-Philip Tremblay.

M: Tell me about the piece. Lots of glissandi, lots of interesting shapes and colours. What inspired you?

P: Itís always difficult question to try to pin-point where inspiration comes from. I know a lot of composers can give you very concrete answers. Again, I go back to Ė maybe Iíve been watching too much Star Wars, sci-fi Ė but again, itís like the Force. I try not to interfere too much. I feel like aesthetic issues, stylistic issues Ė instead of trying to control them, which I think can end up sounding very forced, I just try to stand back and let happen whatís going to happen.

M: The decision to use the Fibonacci series?1

P: There are some aspects of my work that are very much controlled. In terms of physically writing something you have to have structure Ė you canít just write anything. Especially if youíre going to write music Ė well, everything Ė no matter what youíre doing. If youíre talking about language, a piece of music, art, architecture. It all has to have structure. Whether it be, you know Ė weíre most familiar with tonality. That gives it a certain underpinning, a certain kind logic to a piece. And without that logic itís absolutely meaningless. When writing non-tonal music, this takes on an even greater importance. So when weíre talking about Melody with Gesture Ė yes, I used the Fibonacci series to construct a great deal of the work, such as the scale. Itís just a Fib series, which is 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and on and on and on. I plotted D as 0 and then worked it out from there, so D, Eb, E natural, F, G would be 5, Bb 8, and so on and so forth. Of course I had to cap it some point, or otherwise Iíd just end up getting the chromatic scale. Theyíre all of course octave specific, but then I started transposing when it started getting too far out of the range of the ensemble, and thatís how I ended up filling out the scale. The form of the work is similarly controlled. I usually sit down after I have a general idea of what I would like to write Ė instrumentation, things of that nature. Iíll sit down and Iíll do sketch after sketch, sometimes for as long as a month. Thatís another reason why I work with the eighth. A lot of times I count eighth notes. If you look at a lot of my pre-sketches itís a lot of math, Iíll be working out events right down to the the eighth. So what I ended up doing is I knew approximately how long the work was going to be, counted the number eighth notes and found where the golden section would be and divided the work into two unequal sections. I then took that section and found the golden section of that section. I then found what Iíve been calling Ė and there might be a name for it Ė Iíve been calling the reverse golden section. Itís the identical process but starting from the end of the work towards the beginning. So that gave me some general outline of where things were going to expand and contract and happen.

M: Writers get writerís block. Do you get composerís block?

P: Yes. Writing music is, for me, very difficult and a sometimes painful. Very time-consuming and most of what I write I absolutely detest, and most of what I have written I still detest. So, yesÖ Each time I write a piece I think I have writerís block. It seems as though each time I begin a new piece Iím an infant and I have to learn how to write all over again.

M: What do you think about the label of Ďnew music.í That label is now being applied to much more than just Ďnewí classical music. What do you think about that?

P: Generally I would say that I try to avoid labeling at all costs. This morning I was listening to death metal so I Googled it and, you know, there are so many different types when you really get into it. There are subgenres of subgenres. Classical music is similarly divided, and it can be used as a way of Ė whatís the right word Ė it can suffocate the work a lot of times, or an entire genre. Too often classical music suffers from its own stereotypes. I try to think more in terms of no matter what the aesthetic Ė thereís only good music and bad, and I know it when I hear it, so I try not to rely on labels too much.

M: I didnít look at them all, but I Googled a few Ďnew musicí festivals, and itís pretty obvious that composing, even today, is pretty much a ďmanís world.Ē Why are there not more women composers?

P: That is a good question. I think itís slowly changing, though. In the past it just wasnít socially acceptable to be a female composer. I donít know. I donít want to get myself into trouble here. I think itís a matter of encouragement, nurturing, the way we raise our children. So to sum it all up, I think at one time it wasnít as socially acceptable to be a female [composer], but luckily thatís changing. I mean even on the concert [the Karen Kieser concert on Jan. 31st] we have two female composers [of five] Ė who are both wonderful and very talented. I think itís just a matter of time.

M: What do you see as the challenges in being a professional composer? Most seem to be institutionally supported. Where do plan to go from here?

P: One of the greatest challenges is just having a career as a composer.

M: Why not just write something like Ďbandí music and make a living that way? How do you balance your economic and artistic imperatives?

P: In some ways it seems like classical music is a dying art form but itís really not. There are more people listening, writing and performing than ever before. If monetary gain was a motivational factor in my career choice I wouldnít be a musician.

M: So you donít feel an economic pressure to popularize what you do?

P: Sometimes I do. There can be a lot of money in commercialized music; film scoring for example. Although, I donít see how any film would benefit from my music. It would be terribly distracting.

M: Where do you see yourself going from here if not a film career?

P: Iím very happy with just writing. Itís what I love to do and thatís what I do. So Iím very comfortable and happy doing that.

Diligently working on his Ph.D. in Music Education at the University of Toronto, Roger Mantie conducts the Hart House Symphonic Band at the University of Toronto and directs the Royal Conservatory of Musicís Community School jazz ensemble in his ďspare time.Ē His research interests lie in theorizing avocational and lifelong music making.


1. ĒFibonacci seriesĒ refers to a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers.