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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Michael Gandolfi -- 'Plain Song, Fantastic Dances'

Composer Michael Gandolfi (born 1956) has been an active presence in the Boston Massachusetts, USA area for a number of years and has been recently gaining increasing national attention for his works. He is a faculty member at the New England Conservatory and has been awarded many grants and commissions. Other recent projects include a saxophone concerto for Kenneth Radnovsky and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a piano concerto for the London Sinfonietta, and a recently premièred orchestral work for the Tanglewood Music Center, where he also teaches.

Gandolfi's latest work, Plain Song, Fantastic Dances, was commissioned by the St Botolph Club of Boston and will be premièred at 3pm on 23 October 2005 by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players at Jordan Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. The work is scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and contrabass -- in three movements, provisionally titled: 1) St Botolph's Fantasia, 2) Tango Blue, and 3) Quick Step.

OneCarson Cooman: The notes for your new work say that, because of the commission from the St Botolph Club of Boston (and because St Botolph himself lived during the reign of Pope Gregory), you used a Gregorian chant and a derived 13th century organum as source material for the piece. Do you often use source material of this sort for your work, and how do you find it structures your creative process?

Michael Gandolfi: This is the first time that I've used Gregorian chant as source material for a piece. I've occasionally used other types of source material when I've felt that it was warranted by the commission or the circumstances relating to the conception of a given piece, but it is not a common practice of mine. In this case, the source material was chosen specifically to connect the piece to St Botolph, via the music collected by Pope Gregory the Great, which I felt was an appropriate way to celebrate the St Botolph Club's 125th anniversary, since they had commissioned the work. To be honest, I really didn't know much about the history of St Botolph or the club before the project. During this research process, I learned that the followers of St Botolph had named an English city in his honor, 'Botolphston', which over the centuries linguistically morphed into 'Boston'. So, when the English settlers came to America and named this city 'Boston', they were actually honoring St Botolph by giving his metamorphosed name a prominent place in the New World. Thus, the connections all seemed very appropriate and compelling.

Regarding using external source materials in general, however, I recently was commissioned to write a tango for wind ensemble. I did much research ahead of that composition because I knew very little about tango. The ensuing composition Vientos y Tangos, has been quite successful and I am pleased with having been given that 'assignment'.

In 1996 I received a commission from the Boston Musica Viva to compose a chamber piece, Grooved Surfaces, in which I had been specifically asked to involve world music influences. I initially refused the commission, stating that other composers were far more qualified to write such a piece. But Richard Pittman, the director of Boston Musica Viva, insisted that I compose the piece and so eventually I acquiesced to his wishes. I'm pleased that Mr Pittman was persistent.

For this piece I thought it would be appropriate to investigate West African music; I have an extensive background as a jazz guitarist and the link between West African music and American jazz is obviously strong.

I gathered recordings of Ghanaian music, and transcribed several drum ensemble pieces from them. In the process of doing those transcriptions, I found several rhythms and rhythmical techniques that I knew would serve well as the basis of a piece. The pitch material was my own, and unrelated to Ghanaian music, but the rhythms and rhythmical structures came from these transcriptions.

Thus, sometimes in these rare circumstances, where the commission specifically warrants it, I will go ahead and try to find external source material to generate a piece. In the case of Plain Song, Fantastic Dances, I hadn't been specifically asked to connect to St Botolph. But I thought it might be interesting to do so -- and I found a way that was satisfying and fruitful.

TwoCC: You're known for blending influences from popular and jazz music (and your own background in that area) with classical elements in your compositions. Does that figure at all into this new piece?

MG: Yes, it does. It's become such a part of my writing that I don't consciously make such choices anymore.

In this case, the second movement, ('Tango Blue') has a groove quality that relates to my pop music roots. I wasn't thinking about writing a 'tango' specifically, but I was preoccupied with writing a generally 'bluesy' movement. The melodic lines unfold in this bluesy atmosphere. There is an underlying rhythm which has a tangential connection to a tango. This is not the Argentinean nuevo tango exemplified in Astor Piazzolla's music, but a more 'filtered' tango, such as that found in Stravinsky's tangos, among others. Most importantly, the movement has a dance quality that I connect in an abstract way to the tango.

The last movement is fast and is scherzo-like at the outset, but soon breaks away from the lightness that one associates with a scherzo. The melodic profile in the expository section has folk-like elements that one might hear as having traces of traditional Irish folk music.

I didn't set out to do that initially, but as I was writing, I felt the influence of these folk elements emerging and I simply welcomed the serendipity and spontaneity of the moment.

ThreeCC: Many of your recent compositional commissions have been orchestral pieces. Coming out of a period of so much orchestral work, do you find that your approach to chamber music is influenced by that?

MG: Interesting that you should ask that, as one little fear I perhaps have about this new piece is that it might be rather 'orchestral' in its overall conception. Overall, it is definitely a piece of chamber music, and I don't worry that it won't succeed in performance as such. But once I finished the score, I found myself going back over it and thinking 'Was I hearing an orchestral piece here and there?'

Chamber music exists in a conversational and intimate world. It's more personal and the instruments have more individual roles than they otherwise do in an orchestral piece. They typically don't combine into larger forces with the colorful and weighty sonorities that are typical in an orchestral piece.

But in this piece, there are instances, particularly in the first movement (and the very ending, where the first movement's material returns) which do feel orchestral in conception. I could easily imagine writing that 'same' music for orchestra, in fact.

By contrast, the second movement is certainly more chamber-like than the first. The winds have those interlocking bluesy lines that I alluded to earlier and they coexist with the strings in an intimate chamber texture. The last movement as well is a pure piece of chamber music perhaps owing to its overall contrapuntal design.

But having said all of this, after finishing the entire work, I found myself wondering about how much the piece had been influenced by my recent orchestral works.

While I do think the piece succeeds as a true chamber piece, I must add that in writing a piece in the 7-14 instrument range, one begins to cross into a gray area that straddles the worlds of orchestral music and chamber music. This is never the case when writing a trio, a quartet, a quintet or even a sextet.

With seven or more instruments however, it's easy to find oneself, from time to time, thinking at some level in orchestral terms.

Copyright © 21 September 2005 Carson P Cooman, Rochester, NY, USA






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