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Sean Shepherd discusses his latest commissions and a personal response to the American landscape.

In your new work for the Cleveland Orchestra, Tuolumne, you explore the iconic Yosemite photos by Ansel Adams . How do you view the relationship between eye and ear?

It's a big question for any composer who dares to make the leap between the visual and the aural, and between spatial versus temporal concerns. Of course many composers have succeeded, probably most famously Mussorgsky. I chose not to make a kind of translation of the images I chose; that is, nothing in the music is intended to represent anything in the photographs, at least from my perspective. Any listener is free to make any connection they choose, literal or not. But because both the artist and subject matter were close to heart and close to home (Adams’s autobiography sat on my mother's bookshelf when I was young, and I was fascinated by seeing in a nice picture book places in eastern California that I'd already visited), I didn't think a rational mapping from image to sound was useful or even very interesting. My response was as much concerned with my feelings about seeing those images as it was the musical ideas that they inspired.

As a young composer, do you look over your shoulder at other Americans who’ve created musical portraits of place, from Ives and Copland through to John Adams?

It's striking you should mention those three composers. Each of them seem to resonate strongly with people's associations of the ‘American’ in music, although in different ways and maybe not for the same people. Copland figured strongly for me when I was young, John Adams much more recently. People all over the world think that Ives is America's noblest musical export, and I didn't hear a single note of it until I was about 20 years old.

Questions about nationality are so tough. Copland was writing about the wild West from Brooklyn, Ives was ingesting the world around him and synthesizing it. John Adams has absorbed much from many cultures, but I consider the Eastern influences on his music as being the most telling. Truth be told, it's probably not the Americans who I worry about looking over my shoulder because many of my heroes, living and dead, have been Europeans. I feel comfortable enough being an American these days, which is a new development, whether at home or abroad.

Ansel Adams’s photos are distinctively black and white. How have you coloured the landscapes?

I thought of the black and white world in terms of contrast. The second photo I chose, Winter Sunrise…1944, a famous image of the Sierra Nevada mountains, is full of high contrast, sharp details, and has a specific vastness of scale. I responded to those qualities. In the fast tempo, there are lots of sharp edges and quick changes of character, but slower elements at work. Some features are loud and bombastic, while there is also plenty of quiet and cool. Once I had defined those ingredients, I enjoyed making the object and the story a musical one.

You’ve talked of your music being an emotional response to landscape. What do you mean by this exactly?

My fascination with places is always a bit of a mystery, but I still find myself sensitive to my environments: where the sun is in the sky and how the air feels; the energy of people and animals; and things like noise or lack thereof. Perhaps it's because I came from Nevada (an unusual state in more ways than one!)  that when I began to travel as a teen I was often stunned by what I saw and felt. I've always been drawn to Ansel Adams, probably because of his clear talent for capturing in his photos what he finds special in a certain locale; I like to assume we share that sensitivity to place. His best photos are often from the West and they now remind me strongly of home. That’s why his work affects me ever more deeply when I see it. I have a very similar response to certain pieces I seem to have known forever: La Mer, Le Sacre.  I feel somehow possessive, but I realize it's not about the work, but more about my response to it. I seem to need to own that outright.

As long as I feel inspired and compelled to do so, I’m likely to write about it. Tuolumne is the latest in a line of pieces that deals with place, which may appear to be something of a trope for me, though I'm approaching the works from different vantage points. Wanderlust was about the vagabond life and the mixed joys and sorrows of rootlessness, while Desert Garden was concerned with the loss of a close family member and the questions about what one leaves behind when they die. I tried to keep Tuolumne focused on the images themselves, and on letting my associations with seeing a granite boulder in a stream or a wind-blown tree flow into the piece without other programmatic intent.

At 25 minutes, Tuolumne is your largest orchestral canvas to date. How did you shape the material and form?

When I was younger, it seemed more natural for me to go toward aphorisms, with pieces taking shape as bundles or bouquets of short character pieces, like Schoenberg Op. 9 or lots of Webern. Over recent years I've become more focused on building longer strands, or on using materials that are capable of being stretched. The first movement of Tuolumne, Water Over Rock, is one 10-minute statement, and I worked hard at shaping it to naturally occupy that space. I viewed the second movement - as fast and variegated as it is - as a kind of a slow build to the climax (or the catharsis or catastrophe?) of the work that occurs in the first part of the third movement. I like to think of the form of the piece as being larger than the movements themselves, whether they are connected or not.

Your next premiere is for the National Youth Orchestra of the USA and Valery Gergiev. Did writing for younger players demand a different style?

I do think about the band on stage but it's part of a bigger set of parameters, like the whole programme, or the venue and occasion of the premiere. I was never concerned about the skill of these excellent players and felt free to make a piece that sounded like me, but was really for and about them. These are the first notes this orchestra will play in its concerts, so I wanted it to be a celebratory sound.

Why is it titled Magiya?

It's on a Russian programme with the great Russian maestro and will visit Russia on tour, as well as Washington and the BBC Proms. When I started composing I thought of it as my Russian overture but we'll have to see if it turns out to be An American in Moscow.  From folklore through contemporary literature and all over opera, the Russian sense of everyday magic (or magiya), with no fairygodmothers or lamps needed, seemed an appropriate notion for a concert overture.

What are your plans for next season’s New York Philharmonic commission?

The piece for Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic will be bookended with Beethoven's second and third piano concerti (with Fima Bronfman as soloist). It's an inspiring if unusual place to sit, and going from and back to Beethoven has suggested some kind of arch to me. That's as far as I’ve reached, but I’m looking forward to resolving the challenge.

Interviewed by David Allenby, 2013

>  Further information on Work: Tuolumne

Photo: Jamie Kingham

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