An Interview

by Benoît Dorion
(This interview was done before the première of the composer’s Guitar Sonata, commissioned by the Montreal Guitar Society for a concert in the spring of 1997.)
B.D. You started piano lessons at age 7; later, at age 21 you became interested in the organ. What attracted you to that instrument?
A.B. Mainly the desire to play Bach on the organ. I was trained first as a pianist. I was very motivated as a child and I even had a formal début concert when I was about 18, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. A few years later, a friend insisted I go with him to try out the first modern tracker organ made here by Casavant. I had no acquaintance with such instruments; my only knowledge at the time was of the thick, heavy romantic organ sound, which didn’t appeal to me. I played the Casavant, and was seduced by the lovely clear sound, and the possibility of playing Bach. Eventually I took organ lessons, first with Dom André Laberge and then with Bernard Lagacé.
Did playing the organ lead you to improvisation?
No, I was already improvising before that. Having started the piano very young, I got into the habit of exploring at the keyboard. Today, I use improvisation as a source of ideas for composition. Ideas do not always come easily, so improvisation allows me to save up a reservoir of ideas, taking note of anything I find interesting in my sketchbook. When I started using a computer sequencer in my composition in 1986-7, it was still a rather new tool. I tried using superimposed successive improvisations in my electroacoustic piece Adagio II, which remains one of my favorite works. The computer made it possible to record the improvisations and then to edit them, refining and correcting as needed where the music was not convincing to me as initially played. In an improvisation, there are usually uneven patches, and the computer allowed me to combine spontaneity with the refinement I demand of a finished piece. All this is possible of course because I was at ease with the keyboard very young; I am definitely a composer who writes at the keyboard!
Who were the composers who inspired your first compositions? Which pieces?
I started composing at around 8 or 9 years old. My interests then turned mainly around the piano repertoire, in particular the standard concertos by Beethoven, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Schumann. These pieces impressed me so much that by age 12 I had written three concertos myself! Of course at that time I had no craft; I did have ideas, but I had no notion of what to do with them. It was only at age 17 that I began to acquire the necessary technical skills, mainly studying with the late Marvin Duchow, which allowed me to begin composing with some genuine métier. At that point I discovered Berg and Mahler, who for a while influenced me quite a lot. And finally, during my doctoral studies at Juilliard my teacher David Diamond introduced me to the American school of symphonists, which really corresponded well to my own inclinations. Although I like many kinds of music, the main influences on my mature style are mostly twentieth century symphonists like Sibelius and Nielsen and the Americans.
You were a founder and the director of the Composer’s Concert Society. Can you tell us about this society?
The original idea was simply to form a small group of composers and to get our music played. For three seasons, we presented two or three concerts a year, of which several were broadcast by the CBC. It worked out quite well, and allowed us to promote our work and to organize concerts which would have been very difficult to arrange individually. However, the group was very small, and the work fell regularly to the same few people. Nonetheless, it was a good idea and the experience was valuable.
You have a doctorate in composition from the Juilliard School in New York. Did your teachers David Diamond and Elliott Carter influence your writing style, and if so, in what way?
Of course. First of all, just the fact of being accepted to this very selective school and having access to a high level of professionalism and to teachers who were major artists was very satisfying for me. I was looking for people who could help me acquire a very refined level of craftsmanship. I realized very young that talent without craft still leaves you an amateur. Since I have always loved the orchestra, Juilliard, with its five orchestras available to read student composers’ music, especially at that time when computer simulation of the orchestra was still impossible, was a real pleasure. So the availability of the orchestras, good teachers who put a strong emphasis on craft – these were the things I liked at Juilliard.
Can you describe your preferred listener?
Someone who likes music, new music, and without stylistic prejudices. Someone who goes to a concert with a certain openness of spirit to enjoy a musical experience, which, in the case of my music, emerges from our musical tradition. I want my music to express something personal and I want people to make the connection with the tradition in listening to it. In general, I prefer it when my pieces are placed in mixed programs, including music the audience already knows, and not just new music.
When you compose, what impressions do you want to communicate to your listeners.
Certainly, to have an emotional impact. When I compose I put as much of my own emotion as possible into the work. Also I hope people will recognize that the music is well crafted. But the best compliment anyone can give me is to say that they found my music beautiful and moving.
You are the author of six symphonies. What do you enjoy in writing for orchestra?
Obviously the immense color, the scope, the possibility of going to extremes: extreme loudness, softness. Also, there is something moving in seeing a hundred people working together towards the same creative goal. In a passage with a lot of momentum, a crescendo, the orchestra has an impressive strength that no individual can achieve. The orchestra lends itself to large forms, and for me, writing major works for orchestra is an intellectual and emotional challenge which I find very satisfying.
Your music is often rich in ideas, contains many changes, contrasts and textures. How do you tie it all together?
This is an important point, often poorly understood. We are talking here of the intersection of two ideas: unity and movement. For me, music is movement in sound. And to put sounds into movement (and I owe this attitude to Carter), the first requirement is that one thing flow into another. The art of creating this coherence is essentially that of making transitions, of linking, and there is a real art to this process, which comes back to the Latin root of the word compose – componere: “putting things together”. Sometimes I hear music with good ideas, but where the connections are unsatisfactory. This is a subject which interests me a lot, and which is the focus of a little book I am writing on the craft of composition. A large part of this book is given over to what I call the “sense of form”, which in my opinion is the hardest thing to acquire as a composer.
What are your criteria for a successful work?
First, it must show technical refinement. And that means that all the details must bring out the expressive intentions in a coherent way. For example, if a passage is supposed to be strong or noble in character, and if the instruments are used in their dullest registers, the effect will not be what was desired.
Beyond that, I want the piece to take me on an emotional voyage, with a large range of feeling. In other words, I think a work should carry the listener along an interior exploration, and this exploration can include detours, various interesting places, which should seem inevitable without being predictable.
What do you aim for in teaching composition?
The most important thing a teacher can give a student is the knowledge of what to ask of himself. You can’t give someone a style or a language, but you can make them aware of what demands they should make on themselves.
In your classes, students participate a lot. How do you teach writing skills in a group setting?
Easy! Ask questions! If there is one thing in which I believe in teaching, it is the old Socratic method: teach with questions and not with answers. There is a kind of professor who gives a nice talk without stopping for a couple of hours, until the students fall asleep! The idea is not to have an active teacher and a passive student, but to have both active. And nothing stimulates students more than asking questions. You have to avoid giving the answers before making the students feel the necessity of the questions. There is an analogy between teaching and composition: the first thing a composer has to do is to create interest at the start of the piece. There is a certain rhythm to it, you have to create some suspense before giving the answers.
What was your first contact with the guitar?
About 10 years ago, Peter McCutcheon commissioned a solo guitar piece from me. We worked together on the piece, “Voices”. He lent me several recordings of guitar works so that I could get to know other things than the standard Spanish repertoire, for example the beautiful “Nocturnal”, by Britten.
You define yourself as a symphonist; how do you approach writing for an intimate instrument like the guitar? Do you still feel expressively free?
I define myself as a symphonist, but I don’t write only symphonies; I also write chamber music and music for solo instruments. It is true that if I had unlimited access to an orchestra, I would probably write more often for orchestra than for smaller ensembles. But that said, I still enjoy the challenge of writing something on a smaller scale.
How would you describe your Sonata, commissioned by the Montreal Guitar Society?
Since my first guitar piece, “Voices”, was lyrical and rather impressionistic, I wanted the Sonata to be different: I tried to achieve more dramatic opposition. It is not a classical sonata, but it does respect the basic sonata principle, that is to say the placing together of contrasting ideas which then evolve together – rather like a novel, where various characters with certain types of interaction are seen in different situations. And we get to know the characters partly through their reactions to one another. This piece is a sonata with three themes, developed and then recapitulated with changed characters. It is rather energetic, with a lot of momentum and a toccata-like aspect.
What is required to play this piece well?
What I want to hear is that the work not only be well played from a technical point of view, but also that it communicate emotionally. And to do that, the key word is: character! The contrasts need to be well defined, each section needs to have its own feel, the overall momentum must be respected, it needs brio and fire!