Composer Sebastian Currier discusses his new orchestral work, Track 8, inspired by Beethoven’s lesser-known Eighth Symphony and commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as part of its Beethoven 250 anniversary celebrations. Conductor Louis Langrée leads the orchestra in the world premiere of Currier’s work on November 19-20.
How would you characterize Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony?
I've always liked Beethoven's Eighth. There are the big symphonies, and then the understated symphonies—clearly the Eighth is one of the understated, coming between the more massive Seventh and Ninth. It's one of those middle-Beethoven pieces where he's looking back a little bit. There's this almost neo-classicizing because he's already moved so far away from Classical.
It's also the only piece I’ve ever conducted—back when I was at the Manhattan School of Music, I had one conducting class, and I conducted the first movement of Beethoven's Eighth. It was not the most fun experience—I’ve never conducted again! Yet I’ve still always liked the piece.
Why does Beethoven still feel so alive and vital for you today?
I've noticed how some pieces, that can be trendy and seem new, just a few decades later seem really old, whereas something like Beethoven’s Op. 131 seems new and transgressive now. It’s sort of like Shakespeare—the voices of the characters are so modern that they seem to relate to things that you think about and care about. It’s uncanny. Beethoven said something universal in a way that just connects. It’s just his power.
You refer to the piece as a “Beethoven remix.” How do you apply such a modern concept to a piece that’s 200 years old?
I think of jazz, where you're using or reusing some standard tune. You don't use the word remix, per se, but you are varying it, you're playing with it, you're elaborating it, so that there's this sort of living tradition of handing down and remolding things. I thought of it as part of that tradition, but where a jazz composer looks back 20 years, I'm looking back 200 years and using something that feels very much a part of my musical life because I grew up with the stuff.
You’ve described Track 8 as running along a parallel track to Beethoven’s Eighth. In what ways does it “track” the piece?
There are some Beethoven quotes, actual literal quotes. But truthfully, in terms of proportion of the piece there is very little direct quotation. Sometimes a little goes a long way. For example, the first movement is called "Signposts," because over the course of the movement, you have these little fragments of not more than a few seconds each of a quote from Beethoven, and they act like girders or a bridge, so that everything else I construct is supported by those little fragments. In the rest of the piece the references are more about paraphrasing—again, more like a jazz composer would take some figure or tune and vary it. I was aware of the power of hearing these little fragments of quotes, and so I wanted to explore the ways I could lead up to them and follow them and re-contextualize them, and change their meaning through that new context. I don’t mean to do violence to the piece with these literal elements, I feel like I’ve really connected to the piece.
In the second movement, you bring together two other works that “don’t seem to fit,” according to your program note. How did you pull together these seemingly disparate parts?
In the second movement, in addition to the Beethoven, I quote two other works. The Beethoven is approximately 200 years old, so I looked for works that were around the 100-year mark, following this idea of a bridge between the current practice and the past. Then I chose two excerpts that could not be more different: a bit of Webern’s Op. 6 orchestra pieces, and a song of Irving Berlin.
I’d never done that sort of collage of making something new by bringing together two pre-existing pieces like that. On the surface they seem extraordinarily different, contrary aesthetics, but maybe they are not as far apart as you think. You just need to imagine it. So you hear them both separately in the movement, and then at the end you hear them together. The Webern has this very quiet ostinato figure with these chords going back and forth, and it forms an accompaniment with this fractured version of the Irving Berlin. And then there's not that much tension there. One has to just find the way to do it, and it's waiting for you there.
Inteviewed by Maggie Douglass (2020)
UPDATE: This article was originally published in February 2020 and has been reposted and updated ahead of the work's rescheduled premiere in November 2021.
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Photo: Jennifer Taylor
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