The Creative Process: An Interview

Read interviews with Laurie Conrad about her books and recordings

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The Creative Process: An Interview

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The Creative Process: An Interview with Composer Laurie Conrad
Ithaca Journal Staff

Composer Laurie Conrad will present original pieces in a Sunday evening concert at the First Baptist Church in downtown Ithaca. Among the pieces is her latest work, titled "String Quintet II," was written for the new violin family quintet (soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor and baritone violins) built by local violin maker Robert J. Spear and played by members of the Albert Consort. Sunday's concert will also include a demonstration of the instruments by Spear and an informal talk by the composer.

A concert pianist and former composition student of Karel Husa, Conrad recently released two CDs: "Early Songs," a collection of her earliest 12-tone compositions, mostly from the 1980s, and "Nine Visions for Harp & Flute," written for and performed by harpist Myra Kovary and flutist Laura Campbell.

Earlier this week, Conrad answered some email questions from Ticket this week about her approach to composition, her influences, and "String Quartet II," which was written in memory of Cynthia Diamond Carey.

Ticket: Can you talk about the music you've composed for Sunday's concert? Have you written much string quintet material?

Conrad: I have written for strings in the past: unaccompanied solos, chamber pieces, and works for full orchestra. My first string quintet was "Elegie," which was also written for Robert Spear's new family of stringed instruments. "Elegie" was written during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it is dedicated to all the innocent victims of that war.

This second string quintet is three movements long and 84 pages of fairly complicated score. It is written in a loose 12-tone style. I wrote this 12-tone row to sound more traditionally harmonic and then broke so many rules that most listeners will probably think of it more as Impressionistic or quasi- tonal. In the past few years, the twelve tone technique has become more of a unifying technical and psychological force for me, rather than the atonal sound it is usually associated with. I am slowly drifting back to tonality, and often abandon the technique altogether.

Because I was again writing for the Albert Consort, and knew them to be fine musicians, I did a bit of experimenting that I might not ordinarily allow myself as a composer. Many passages are quite difficult, and I wrote some of the most difficult lines for the usually pampered and neglected two lowest instruments. Each instrument has to face its own challenges in this piece. In addition, the overall sound of the quintet is very clear and exposed, in order to show off Spear's instruments to advantage. Therefore, there aren't many opportunities for the musicians to hide behind other lines. Each player is essentially a soloist.

The overall form is a bit unusual. There are no breaks between movements. The first movement is a slow movement and rather sad. The second movement is the fast movement. The last movement is a dance for sprites in another realm and begins with little drums. The movement ends with the two lowest instruments continuing the drum idea, this time double forte and with bowed pitches, building to the last page of score. The melodies are whimsical and repeating in this movement, and light -- dancelike. There is some foreshadowing of themes between the movements, and the inner form of each movement is actually rather innovative.

Ticket: Was it challenging to compose for a set of new instruments? How do they compare to standard stringed instruments?

Conrad: It was challenging, in the sense that before I wrote "Elegie" I had never heard them. Robert described their sound to me, and actually his descriptions were very accurate. I was extremely pleased with their sound -- unusually rich and vibrant. Spear is probably one of the finest instrument makers of our lifetime.

Other than "writing in the dark"-- i.e., not knowing what the instruments would sound like --these instruments were very easy to write for. The usual range gaps between the different string family members did not exist. And writing for instruments capable of such beautiful, clear sound is pure joy.

For the musicians, however, it is a different story. They are playing on different sized and pitched instruments, and often reading a new clef. One of the musicians is now playing an instrument held like a cello, and she is a violist.

Ticket: Can you describe the collaborative process with the members of the Albert Consort?

Conrad: The Albert Consort is made up of fine, professional musicians, so it has been a happy collaboration for that reason alone. In addition, they are wonderful people. Musically, I have not changed any notes since we began rehearsals, so there has not been collaboration in that sense. Actually, I did add one note. The musician said, "That's funny, I wanted to play that note there." Throughout the years, musicians have always seemed to instinctively, intuitively understand my music. Certainly, that is true of this group. When they have questions about phrasing or tempo, they ask me in our rehearsals. Most of the time, I just let them play. They know what to do.

Ticket: The "Visions" CD seems to capture our surroundings. Was that a new compositional milestone for you?

Conrad: I hope not. I don't like the idea of "milestones", they sound dreary and hard - like a long climb or a high wall. I am actually very fond of everything that I write. In fact, my favorite piece is the very first song I ever wrote - "Morning". It is for soprano voice and clarinet and only lasts about thirty seconds.

In "Visions for Flute and Harp", the opportunity to explore those two instruments , especially the harp, opened up a new world for me. I had never written for harp. To write for musicians as gifted as Myra Kovary and Laura Campbell was equally inspiring. Myra and Laura both made my music their own, and I will always be grateful to them for their beautiful interpretation and extraordinary musicianship. The three of us had ongoing rehearsals for almost a year before we recorded the cycle. In addition, Myra and I met often alone to rehearse and discuss the score. It was also enjoyable to write in a more French Impressionist style and evoke images through music.

Ticket: Does the composition process come easily to you? Are there things you do to get yourself "in the zone" to write?

Conrad: Usually, the main problem is that I can't write the notes down on the paper fast enough, and my initial sketches are often almost unreadable. To get "in the zone" I sit down at the piano and put a new piece of manuscript paper on the music rack. Actually, I put several pieces of empty sheets on the rack, otherwise I have to jump up and search for more when I would rather be writing them all down. Sometimes I am clairvoyantly given pages of score while I am walking down the street or sitting on the downstairs couch reading the New York Times. On occasion I am shown the entire piece, from beginning to end, even if the piece is 100 pages of score.

Then I can go for long stretches of time without any ideas or any inclination to write music. In those times I give piano concerts and study the music of others. I am not the sort of composer who will sit and stare at the blank sheet of manuscript paper. If I don't have ideas, I do something else, like work in the garden or paint the house.

If there is a time limit, as there was with the CAPS grant I received for this string quintet -- if I need an idea in a hurry, I will take a walk or talk to the flowers or sweep the floors. I will let the ideas form themselves first and then I will write them down or find the notes. Sometimes the ideas are very clear, sometimes they are not. But when I sit down to write, the notes come in an endless stream and basically I scramble to get them on paper before they are gone. Once they are gone, I cannot retrieve them. Other ideas will arise, but those will not return.

While we are on this subject, your readers might enjoy "A Composer's Journal" that I am writing on is listed under Arts and Literature.) It is a real journal, and in it I speak about the pieces I am writing and the creative process.

Ticket: How do you know when a piece is done?

Conrad: What great question. I would have to think about that. Sometimes I think a piece is done, and then the next day I realize I am missing an entire movement or two. Within one movement, generally the overall form determines the ending. If I am experimenting with forms, as I often do, then the ending presents itself on its own. There it is, the ending phrase. It might be the ending phrase, but sometimes I have left out a page or two preceding it. So then I go back and fill those in. A very interesting question.

Ticket: When did you know that you wanted to become a composer?

Conrad: I composed my first piece spontaneously at the piano, in front of an adult audience, at the age of six or seven. It was an exhilarating experience, unforgettable. Well, I still remember it -- and that was many, many years ago. It was much more fun than practicing my Chopin Etudes or Mozart Sonatas.

Ticket: Who and what are your main influences?

Conrad: My main influence would have to be the only composition teacher I have ever had, Karel Husa. After Karel, who I adore, I would have to say that I have been influenced by every note of music ever written and every sound I have ever heard. Which includes the pitches and timbres and cadences of every spoken sentence.

Ticket: Your liner notes to "Visions" explain your approach to each of the songs. Is there a process by which you translate those "concrete" verbal thoughts into musical compositional elements?

Conrad: I would not say that I thought about it consciously at all. I had an image before me -- for instance the Cathedrals of Light of Vision V. -- and then I wrote notes that sounded like bells. I began piano at the age of five years old, and perhaps because of that early training, music is more my first language. If anything, I am translating the words of music back into sentences, spoken words, as I live my life. Inwardly I am hearing music, not words.

So the images easily translated themselves into music, all on their own. In our first rehearsal of Vision IV. -- Winter Birds -- the cats came in from the kitchen. They had been listening to us rehearse for months, and that was the only time they came into the living room, where we were rehearsing. Usually the sound of the flute is too much for them. I guess they were looking for the bird.

Ticket: What was it like to revisit your older pieces for "Early Songs"? How would you say your approach to composing has changed since then?

Conrad: To revisit those early songs was to bask in the voices of Louise McConnell and Graham Stewart. As I mention in the program notes, the master tape was lost, and Al Grunwell and I were working off of a stack of copies, trying to choose the best ones to use for the CD. It took us almost a year to make our final decisions. And in that time we kept unearthing new copies, and comparing them. So I was living in those songs and in Louise and Graham's voices for almost a year. Quite an experience! Louise's voice and phrasing is almost chillingly beautiful, especially in the tonal tunes. That these two singers could so easily find the pitches of my songs is also extraordinary. When I gave concerts in NYC I worked with professional singers, and none of them could find the pitches. After a few performances, I stopped giving song concerts in NYC and starting writing instrumental music to perform there instead.

Louise's range was astonishing. Because of her range and abilities I could endlessly experiment.

My approach to composing has in some ways changed entirely -- and in other ways has not changed at all. So this could be a very long conversation. You could say that I completely exhausted the style I used in the early songs. I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, I expressed what I wanted to express. And now I am experimenting with a different language, different words, different sounds. Sometimes, often, I miss those early days, the clarity and the simplicity of that sort of writing. But one cannot go back, one must go forward. In my case, going forward means to become more traditional, more tonal. Generally, that is not the case, composers usually stretch forms and tonalities as they get older. On the other hand, I still might have many years of living and composing before me. And in those years I might return to that early style of writing -- at least here and there. I don't know. Those early songs are so precious to me, it would seem almost like ruining something very beautiful to go back now. Almost as though that ground was sacred and should not be walked on.

Ticket: What projects do you have coming up in the future?

Conrad: You would not have room in this entire newspaper for me to answer that. I have an endless list, because music and creativity themselves are endless. Right now I am writing a three movement cycle for choir and orchestra. I want to record more of my piano pieces. More of the songs. Finish the "Images" I began for flute, harp and viola. Orchestrate another piece for choir and solists and orchestra that is already written. Do more recordings of my music, so that future musicians will have an idea of how I would like my music played.

Originally published Thursday, March 10, 2005
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