‘You Can Get All Balled Up’
Scott Wheeler’s music captures the American contemporary classical idiom with commanding grace. He can speak to us in searing orchestral explorations, and in probing a piano Portrait—a CD coming in June from Bridge Records with a concert at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust. But to many, Wheeler is best known for his settings of texts.
He’s an author’s composer, having created lieder and operatic treatments of work by writers as diverse as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, the playwright Romulus Linney, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, and more. Coming in September to the Boston Lyric Opera, we’ll hear his work with Cerise Jacobs’ libretto when his opera Naga premieres as one-third of the Ouroboros Trilogy, a kind of Bayreuth-in-Boston day-long performance project with Paola Prestini (Music for Writers here and here) and Zhou Long.
Wheeler has provided us with several samples of his music, so you can hear some of his artistry as you read. And his conversation is as comfortable and fun as his music is bracing.
“You can get all balled up if you focus too much on looking for readings for the text you want to set,” he says. “I prefer to read as widely as possible for enjoyment. And always a part of my brain is saying, ‘Wonder if I could set this?'”
How lucky are the writers whose words get the articulate generosity of Scott Wheeler’s music.
‘Every Subtle Variety of Emotion’
While reading our conversation, start with this excerpt from Wheeler’s Dragon Mountain, with the Gramercy Trio, from his recording Shadow Bands.
Our job is to have the students make songs to figure out how poetry and music work together. In the first assignment, we hand out published poems to the class. The students come back singing whichever poem they’ve chosen [to use in making a song]. We listen to one. Then we say, “Okay, who else chose this poem?” We listen to that second song and then talk about what happened to that poem in two different settings, two different songs.
This is a songwriting class with no requirements, any undergraduate can sign up. Almost none of them reads music, even, but they read poetry. And by the second class, they’re immersed in how music relates to poetry, understandability, how you project it. The very things I’ve been concerned with all my musical life, we can get them to address immediately in this simple exercise.
TC: One setting of a poem will make it happy and gay, and another will make it seem tragic.
SW: That’s right, what happens to the music? And in setting a poem, someone will choose a line and keep repeating it as a refrain. So what happens to our sense of those lines? Simple things like this are building blocks, things we have to work with in our art—what do these words mean?
And most poets, most writers, love any chance they can get to expand on what they’re doing [as with musical settings].
TC: How is the Ouroboros going to work when it premieres in September? “Ouroboros” is from the Greek, for the symbol of the snake eating its own tale. This is three operas in a circular story, right?
SW: It’s a trilogy, the one librettist, and three composers. It’s like a Ring Cycle, it’s a reincarnation tale by Cerise Jacobs, the same characters going through it.
TC: Your music, Paola Prestini’s, and Zhou Long’s.
SW: And some of the material is literally the same text that recurs, so it’s coming across in different musical styles according to the composer. Which is exactly the point of my songwriting assignment at Emerson: we’ve got the same text and we’re going to hear how different it sounds in each different opera.
They’re all presented in a single day. Morning opera, lunch break, afternoon opera, dinner break, evening opera—so you can take three in on the one day. Being an ouroboros, you could start with any of them, as long as you go in the right order.
TC: Now in terms of your music, itself, I hear a lot of Karaindrou in you, Eleni Karaindrou, the Greek composer. I get a Greek impulse in your cantata, The Angle of the Sun, something in the way you use string and woodwind. Is that right? What is your starting point for your music?
SW: Did you say Greek? That’s such a compliment. And almost ESP or something like that. If my parents had taken my mother’s name, I’d be [Scott] Anastopoulos. I’m half-Mediterranean. My mother grew up outside of Athens part of the time in her childhood.
The other weird musical part of my background is on the Italian side. I had a great-grandfather who was an immigrant in Brooklyn and wrote opera reviews for an Italian-language newspaper. He’d go to the Met and have parties with Caruso and the gang.
I actually did a lot of the work on Naga in Italy, an arts colony in the suburbs of Genoa, on the mountainside looking down at the Mediterranean.
TC: How would you describe your music? In its purest form, I mean, not necessarily in a text, which carries its own meaning. What are you doing in your music, what are you saying to us?
SW: If I could say it in words, it might make it not necessary to write the music. We live and breathe within this world of music. Even those of us who aren’t composers. Almost everybody I know lives with a soundtrack, either playing on some music player or going on in their head, as with us, musicians.
To share that is to share every subtle variety of emotion that could be going through your head or body. Laughter, dancing, grieving, worrying, hunger, every conceivable dramatic and poetic emotion—but you can’t name it. It’s a funny kind of combination.
“Was that violet or maroon? I’ve never heard that color before but that’s the color that came out in that piece.” Any musician is going to have a personal sensation of what their music must be. Our job is not to judge that or manipulate it too much, but do the best we can. Keep on working at it as any craftsman would.
The first place I’m sharing my music is with the performer. And that’s not like a writer. A writer can send it directly out to a reader. But I can’t send my score out directly out to anybody. A fine musician might be able to look at a score and get a sense for what it should be. But I’m writing for that performer. And it’s the performer’s job to share whatever that music means to him with the audience.
Composers are like architects. The drawings have no meaning until you get an experience of the building. Same with music. The experience of a work of music only happens when an orchestra picks it up.
‘Minimal Physical Exertion’
SW: It’s a total blast. It’s a chance to exercise multiple mental capacities with minimal physical exertion. [Laughs.]
The first thing every conductor has to learn is to get over yourself. You’re not the one doing it. Those players are making those sounds. You’re not. Your job is to listen to them. Judge those balances, plan those crescendos, and start and stop in the right ways. Listen and open up for them to express the music.
When it’s my music, I know what I’m looking for in there. A few words of guidance and a couple of gestures—generally it’s quite easy to get across to the players what’s supposed to be happening.
I’ve also conducted more than a hundred new works of other conductors over the years. That’s different. I then have the mental exercise of getting into the expressive world of a different composer.
But as far as the experience of conducting is that I’m not actually doing anything. I’m guiding, trying to channel. Some of it is just turning oneself over to the experience of the work, the emotional experience of it. Of course you’re dancing and weeping but you try not to make too big a show of it because that’s distracting.
But you are. You are. You’re deeply emotionally invested.