Marcos Balter is a composer based in Chicago, where he frequently collaborates with local ensembles. His works have been performed all over the world by groups like ICE and Ensemble Dal Niente. He is currently the director of music composition at Columbia College. I spoke with him at the beginning of September.
I’ve heard your music described as a hybrid between minimalism and spectralism; many of your compositions seem to fixate on a particular effect or acoustical phenomena. Do you find enough consistency in your works that might place them into a particular style or genre? Or do you find such labels irrelevant?
As cliché as it may sound, I’m not concerned about fitting into any specific style or genre while I’m composing. That is not to say I am not aware of them, and that works or composers that I admire don’t end up influencing my own compositional voice. I find myself attracted to eclectic composers who express very unique viewpoints while at the same time establishing a connection to the existing compositional dialogue. For instance, I really admire the works of Beat Furrer, where you can hear a Lachenmannian attention to timbre, an undeniable influence of minimalism and process music (very much like Ligeti sometimes), awareness of European late modernism, and a harmonic kinship to both American jazz and Early Music, all at once. Yet, it takes you about five seconds to realize you’re hearing a Beat Furrer work, not because I think he thrives to create a stylistic frame to his work, but because that synthesis itself is very individualistically done, realized in a very unique way. It matters little to me if it sounds like it belongs to a specific trend. What really matters is if it sounds genuine while demonstrating individuality and artistry.
As for labels, I think they can be a pedagogical aid to newcomers; a way to go through the existing repertoire in a somewhat categorized fashion. But, I believe they are not – or shouldn’t be – relevant to composers themselves. I’ve heard more than once people describing what I do as “spectral minimalism,” like you mentioned. I find the term silly as spectralism did come, in part, from minimalism, so “spectral minimalism” seems redundant to me. But, that is not to say that I am a spectralist either. I like minimalist composers and I like spectral composers, so I can’t rebuke those influences. But do I try to belong to either “school”? No, absolutely not. That bit about fixating on a particular effect or acoustical phenomena, though, is more true to what I do. But I don’t have or need a label for that.
In the past you’ve said that when you are commissioned by an ensemble you know personally, you often write parts with a particular player in mind. On one hand, this is a composer’s dream come true; knowing the ability of a player and adapting to their idiosyncrasies in order to achieve exactly what you want. But do you find it a disadvantage in terms of adapting that music to another player or ensemble? In other words, do you write with the idea of a self-sustainable composition in mind?
I am lucky to always know who will be premiering my works while I am writing them. It would be crazy to not let this knowledge infiltrate the artistic process. I learned from the best that you should write music for performers, not for the “concept” of performers. Bach wrote for specific performers (including himself). And so did Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky, and most composers. In fact, I would say this notion of writing for the “universal performer” is historically recent as a phenomenon, and one I don’t care to emulate. Especially because it indirectly implies there is one “right” way of performing one’s music, which I find extremely unfriendly toward performers. When I go to listen to Beethoven’s Fifth for the thousandth time, I don’t go because I expect to encounter the same music I did in my previous hearings. I go for the exact opposite reason: to see if something new will happen and hear what those specific performers have to say about it.
It is very gratifying to see a work performed by the musicians they were written for, but I am also always glad to see these works continuing to grow in different directions when performed by others. To me, the self-sustainability of a work is in its power to change from one performance to another, not to remain the same. So, let others besides the composers worry about how to adapt ideas. What you refer as adaptation I prefer to call interpretation. And interpretation is a crucial aspect of what I try to do.
A few of your shorter works make use of a very simple, recognizable form; Intercepting a Shivery Light, for instance, has a very clear ABA. Are you thinking of these forms as being accessible to your audience or more that they are serving the nature of the sounds?
I choose forms based on the ideas they are serving. A lot of what I have done recently is based on illusions of immutability, the psychological manipulation of temporal perception, creating stasis while actually changing, and re-contextualization of pseudo-crystalized objects. To me, what is interesting about bringing back or repeating a musical statement is how that statement changes–either perceptually or factually–as the music unfolds. So, a form like ABA, to use your example, can be the best choice to recall something that might sound familiar at first but is no longer the same. Or sometimes I use clear forms as a neutralizer, as a way to say “this trajectory is either irrelevant or secondary, so pay attention to the things you’d most likely ignore if your focus were on form, because it’s not about that.” I think my shorter works use a lot of neutralizers to, in a short time span, magnify very specific ideas that might not get fully savored if competing against others. So when I use ABA as a form, it’s not a choice based on traditionalism. It’s a choice based on perceptual issues.
On Debussy’s birthday, you tweeted “happy 150th, dad.” I can see how you were speaking on behalf of most of your contemporaries, but I also felt that you might have meant it specifically for yourself. Your music revels in color very much in a way that Debussy’s does, and sometimes in a “pretty” way, aesthetically speaking. What’s your relationship with the composer? How do you feel he influences your ears, if not your sound?
I was obsessed with Debussy as a child and he was definitely a very strong influence in my musical upbringing. I still absolutely adore his music which is always so lush, even when subdued. Actually, tracing my “obsessions” throughout my formative years, I can see a very clear tendency toward sensuous music: Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Takemitsu, Boulez, Sciarrino, Furrer, etc. All composers who were/are incredible innovators with the power to, well, give you chills. I think it is funny how afraid some contemporary musicians are of sensuality, which is what some may refer to as “pretty” in music. And there’s a link between pretty and conservative that some hardcore (thus old-fashioned) modernists fear more than death itself. That fear, to me, comes across as being conservative; as conservative as the nostalgists who can’t spot an angularity without hissing.
I like composers who push boundaries toward timeless goals, whose music “talks” to everybody while being neither condescending nor exclusivist. And I love composers who can do just that while being… sexy. There is a huge dose of puritanism in today’s music scene that sees sexy or beautiful as negative or superficial which always puzzles me; it feels so repressed. If someone can say something utterly illuminating in a way that is both daring and sensuous, that makes me tingle from head to toe. That’s what Debussy’s music does to me. And that’s definitely a goal I try to pursue.
You recently arranged Deerhoof’s “Eaguru Guru” for Ensemble Dal Niente when they shared a bill with the band this summer. Any plans to arrange more pop tunes? If so, what bands or songs might you consider?
I can’t say much about this since it’s not public yet, but I’ll just say that that arrangement was just a small warmup to what is yet to come from this triad…
Andrew Tham is a composer and music blogger living in Chicago.