Keith Allegretti 

composer

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July 3, 2016

PL: Welcome to the second hour of Classical Sunday. I’m Peter Lloyd. If this music sounds as though it has roots in New Mexico, well, it does. It’s called Orchestral Matachines, and it was written by my guest, Keith Allegretti, in 2012 as an entry in the Santa Fe Community Orchestra Competition. Well, here is the piece by Keith, Orchestral Matachines.

...show full transcript

[Keith Allegretti Orchestral Matachines plays]

I just played a piece, Orchestral Matachines. It was written by my guest, who is a native of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Keith Allegretti is a composer and pianist who enjoys working comfortably in many genres, including chamber, orchestral, vocal, and electronic music, and even musical theater. His music draws from a variety of influences, from the dark humor of Shostakovich to the lush classical film scores of the 1960s, and occasionally, as we just heard, traditional folk musics from the Southwestern United States. He has had performances in New York, Santa Fe, Houston, Berlin, Ann Arbor, and elsewhere. Among the groups that have performed his work are the Santa Fe New Music, Quartetto Indaco, the Rice University Chorale, the Santa Fe Community Orchestra, as I mentioned, the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Circuit Bridges, the American Creators Ensemble, and many more venues and performance groups. Keith is currently pursuing a doctorate of musical arts at the University of Texas in Austin. He’s studying with Donald Grantham. Keith Allegretti, welcome to classical sunday.

KA: Thank you.

PL: Well, Keith, I gather from the piece of yours that I just played that traditional folk music of New Mexico helped shape your musical imagination.

KA: Yes, it did. The piece you just heard is based on traditional New Mexican folk dances. They’re called the Matachines dances, hence that title, Orchestral Matachines. I’m sort of taking these dances, which are very intimate in nature, and making them orchestral. And the dances themselves, the music which accompanies these dances, combines pueblo elements with hispanic elements. So, you’d hear lots of percussion, for example, and then in addition to that there’s an ensemble, usually consisting of violins and guitars that play melodies over it. And I first learned about these dances from a book by a man named John Donald Robb, who’s an ethnomusicologist. He was teaching at UNM for a while. I think he was on the composition faculty, actually. And he left an enormous legacy of traveling around the Southwest, and recording—making these field recordings of folk music, New Mexican folk music. So, reading this anthology sort of led me to listen to these recordings, and, ultimately, going to visit one of these dances. I went to Bernalillo in 2012 to view the Matachines dance. And what’s really interesting about these dances is that they’re different in different towns in New Mexico. So, for example, Bernalillo does the Matachines dances slightly differently than Taos, or Española, or wherever else they have these dances. So the melodies you heard in the piece that you just played pretty much all come from the Bernalillo version of the dance. They’re, some of them, even direct quotations.

PL: Yeah, I caught the direct quotations. It sounded spot-on. It reminded me of the way that Charles Ives, with his very strong sense of place, would assemble a piece as a kind of collage. Was that part of your working method here—to use actual pieces of performed tradition and then kind of integrate them into a series of musical sequences?

KA: Yes, it was. I relied on the transcribing of John Donald Robb a lot, and in a way, it is a lot like Ives in that it’s a collage that moves through different styles. It also takes a little bit from Bartók, because he went around Eastern Europe and collected a lot of different folk melodies in the same way than I think Robb did. As far as—I’m sorry?

PL: I was just saying that, you know, he took a kind of primitive recording device, Bartók, so that he got the music accurately.

KA: Yeah, yeah he did. And you can hear all the nuances and the performance practice in it, so it’s a really valuable resource. That’s sort of what I did here. I relied a lot on the field recordings. And I think you mentioned Ives. He’s a little bit more eclectic in his approach than this piece might be. I think Ives has sources from, you know, military bands, and hymns, and other things. I don’t think he really wants there to be a focus in his music, and it’s a really great effect, this sort of layering, this multi-stylistic pastiche. I think there is some of that in this piece, though, so I think you’re right to point out a sort of multi, poly-stylistic aspect to the music.

PL: Well, of course you’re in a prestigious advanced degree program, where influences of all kinds, I guess, are there. I mentioned Shostakovich, but, well, that’s part of your education. You’re dipping into all kinds of potential influences, I imagine.

KA: Yeah, some of which I can’t even keep track of, but they’re there, they’re subconscious, you know. There’s a lot of different stuff.

PL: You know, I read on your resume, that you won an award in 2013, highSCORE New Music album, Electronica. And you list an impressive array of software and programming skills. Is a facility with electronic media almost a given for an aspiring composer these days?

KA: Yeah, well, two things, here. First, it absolutely is a given in that there’s a minimum level of competence which I would say is required, particularly with notation software and recording equipment. So, every composer needs to know notation software, and we’re often called on to make recordings of our own music, so that’s very important, very essential for a composer. But you could take it further, as I have, and the piece you mentioned for the highSCORE New Music album is what we might call a purely electronic music—piece of electronic music, in that it doesn’t actually rely on recorded sound. It’s entirely generated by computer. It uses a number of different algorithmic processes. I wouldn’t say that that level of electronic music sophistication is required of a composer, but it certainly helps, and my own view is that it’s been extremely enlightening. And it also has a tremendous cultural relevance, I mean, we turn on the radio to any mainstream station, we’re likely to hear a pop song, which is electronic music. It uses the same procedures that we learn in an electronic music class, so it has a very strong vitality to it.

PL: I imagine that as you're writing a piece and orchestrating a piece that you rely on electronic media to actually do the orchestration, and get at least a rough idea of how it might appear in the hands of actual players. That, I assume, is as standard now.

KA: Yeah. There are actually a lot of older generation composers who are still very skeptical of that. It’s actually getting better. The quality of sound sampling is getting much better with time, and some people even describe it as “scary” how good these sounds can be. I use a decent sound library to reproduce the music I’m writing, and it really has helped me a lot. I imagine that a lot of composers historically would have liked to have had that luxury.

PL: Is it an adjustment? You’ve had some of your pieces recorded by live bands. Is it an adjustment to go from what’s in your head and even accurately rendered electronically to dealing with living musicians?

KA: Yes. That’s one of the pitfalls of technology, of using technology, is that there are two things it is particularly bad with. One is balance of dynamics or volumes of the instruments. It doesn’t really do that justice, because through headphones or through a series of speakers, the acoustic environment is very different than it is in a hall, so there’s unexpected things that happen. And then the other thing, actually interestingly, is tempo, where I’m always having to make tempo adjustments. And this is not a new thing with technology, either. I think it goes all the way back to Beethoven, when he was composing, for example, a late piano sonata called the Hammerklavier sonata, his tempo is virtually impossible, the reason being because he heard that piece in his head rather than in an acoustic environment. That’s just another aspect of adjusting to acoustic environments, which composers always have to get used to.

PL: And I imagine, too, making music is a collaborative business. So, do you find that negotiating with your musicians frustrating or enriching to the music?

KA: I’ve found it to be enriching, but you have to be prepared to make a couple concessions. I think there’s a funny story about Bartók, where a clarinetist said, “I can’t play this part at your tempo.” And Bartók said, “Well, approximate!” You could take that approach, or often what I do is I just say, “Well, ok, the notes aren’t—I’m not married to the notes. I can change a couple notes to make it a little easier for you.” And I often do that. The piece is not done until it’s done, till the performers have actually played through it, and often there’s a lot of changes made in rehearsal for me.

PL: Even changes to allow, what, improvisation? Is that a part of your canon, would you say?

KA: Sometimes. Well, improvisation in the sense that I’d listen to a performer and transcribe what they played and put it on the page, because they know their instrument better than I do, sometimes. Other times, all kinds of changes happen. Sometimes I even have to cut sections of pieces in rehearsals, and that’s a difficult thing, but it can ultimately really make or break a piece of music.

PL: Even as an undergraduate, you took on teaching responsibilities. Your resume lists what sounds like a very interesting gig here a the Santa Fe Community College teaching a class, “Kids in the Arts.” Well, you’re in a graduate program. Will teaching music be something that you hope to continue with, or do you see that as being a way to survive as a composer?

KA: Yes, I see it as a way to survive. I also see it as a tremendous source of satisfaction. First, I’ll just talk a little bit about that “Kids in the Arts.” I don’t know if the community college is still doing it, but it’s a great program. I taught five to ten-year-old kids. Mostly, I think, what inspired me, was this idea, imaginative idea that maybe one of these kids will grow up to be the next Toscanini. Maybe not. But I think ultimately teaching is about making students better than we are, right? So it’s very inspiring for me, and I do plan to continue it into the future.

PL: Yeah, it’s a very generous outlook, if I might say, and one that’s sorely needed, since music education, unfortunately, is a casualty of educational budgets these days.

KA: Yeah, it’s a very sad reality.

PL: Well, you’ve chosen a way forward that is fraught with difficulties. You seem to have great success with entering a winning competitions. Is that another—well, it’s another avenue to getting your music out there. A necessary evil, or something that you embrace?

KA: Yeah, I’d say it’s, in a sense, a necessary evil, maybe not even as necessary as we think. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been really fortunate, not necessarily to have won competitions, but one in particular, the community orchestra competition here, led to a very fruitful relationship with Oliver Prezant.

PL: Yeah, he’s been on the show. And he is an absolutely inspiring teacher, I must say.

KA: Yeah, and he’s a friend of composers. He know what we can offer, and he offers a lot to us to really nurture a relationship. So, I’d say about competitions, when they can offer that chance for a long-term collaboration, they’re very valuable. Otherwise, if they’re really just sort of a one time event where you win a competition, it’s performed, and then no relationship ensues after that, they’re far less valuable, in my opinion.

PL: What keeps you going? I mean, we began our conversation with somethings that’s very much tied to the ethnography, if I might say so, of New Mexico, a sense of place. You’re in a prestigious program, so you’re exposed to all of the greats in musical history, but where else do you look to come up with your ideas, your new ideas?

KA: Well, my colleagues, actually. I play a lot of new music. Actually, next semester, I’m going to be performing piano in the New Music Ensemble. A lot of—I think, in a sense, even more than studying the immortals, the music of my own peers that I play or that I listen to in concerts really influences me. And you learn a lot, I guess, from what works in a piece, but also from what doesn’t work. And when you get to talk to a composer, as I’ve talked to a lot of composers that I’ve worked with first hand, it really puts into perspective the creative process. So that’s a huge part of what keeps me going.

PL: Well, let’s finish with a piece that you wrote in 2014, Carceri d’Invenzione. Perhaps you might unpack the title, what it means for your sense of the piece, and how you put it together. Give little kind of introduction to a first-time listening of the piece.

KA: Yeah. So the title is Italian, Carceri d’Invenzione. It translates to “Imaginary Prisons,” and the piece is inspired by a series of etchings by an Italian artist, Giovanni Piranesi.

PL: Oh, yeah, I know them, now that you mention it.

KA: Yeah, from the 1740s. They predate Goya a little bit, but they’re very much in the style of Goya. They’re dark, kind of surreal, and they’re depictions of prisons, of vast structures and dungeons. So fairly dark subject matter, I guess, but I felt there was an imaginative flair to the pictures that demanded maybe somewhat more lively music. I think one influence that you’ll hear in particular here is Respighi, whom I really admire—Ottorino Respighi, an Italian composer, I think early 20th century. He imagined piece that were very grand in their scope and their scale. He wrote Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome, in particular. They’re very grand music.

PL: And a great orchestrater, too.

KA: Oh, yeah. I think you can’t beat Respighi, Debussy, Ravel, they’re really at the top with orchestration. That’s sort of the world that I think this piece inhabits, depicting these rather dark etchings by Piranesi.

PL: And there’s a great evocation of space in those pictures, I mean, as though the whole eternity is within them, as awful as they are. Was that a kind of objective in trying to describe that ordeal, musically?

KA: Yeah, the vastness of the space. This piece was actually premiered at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is a very muddy auditorium, very reverberant. So the piece was kind of envisioned for that particular venue, and I think it works well in a large, reverberant space, because there’s a lot of bass in it, a lot of really deep, low brass. I love to use the low brass. I think that adds to the sense of space.

PL: Well, let’s give a listening to this piece by my guest. We’ve been speaking with Keith Allegretti, and his 2014 piece, Carceri d’Invenzione. Keith Allegretti, thanks very much for coming on Classical Sunday.

KA: Thank you for having me.

[Keith Allegretti Carceri d’Invenzione plays]

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