While Jeremy Gill is best known as a prolific composer, he is a musician who wears many hats. An accomplished pianist, active conductor, and lecturer, Gill is a staunch advocate for new music in all of these contexts. Born in Pennsylvania and currently based in New York City, he has strong connections to Boston and the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, as well.
Several recordings of Gill’s work have been released. His first chamber music discfor Albany dates all the way back to 2008; the label also released Book of Hours/Helian in 2011. More recently, Boston Modern Orchestra Project released a portrait disc of Gill’s orchestral music, and the Parker Quartet documented his hour-long Capriccio for Innova.
While there is a some vocal music on the BMOP CD, more of Gill’s vocal music is yet to be committed to disc. An upcoming portrait concert at National Sawdust, on April 7 at 7pm, affords its audience the opportunity to hear this compelling side of the composer’s output. The program sets two significant vocal works alongside pieces for chamber forces. Variant 6, a mixed vocal sextet, performs Gill’s Six Pensées de Pascal and, in celebration of the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth, the composer’s Whitman Portrait.
Also featured on the program are a formidable Duo for Violin and Piano and the premiere of Lascia fare mi, a duo for two violins. In a recent conversation, Gill discussed his upcoming activities.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: What inspired you to set Walt Whitman’s poetry? How did you come to work with Variant 6?
JEREMY GILL: If I had to pick a single favorite American poet it would be Whitman. I wanted to set his poetry for many years, but I always ran into trouble when I tried. Whitman is so expansive and all-inclusive that I never felt I could adequately address his breadth via a single singer, say—his poetic persona is too multi-faceted, and his attempts to encapsulate the whole of what he understood to be the American experience too wide-ranging.
However, when I was a fellow with American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice program, I was tasked with composing one song for each of AOP’s six resident singers, and these ran the gamut from bass-baritone through high coloratura soprano. This wealth of vocal personalities allowed me to explore Whitman’s many faces, moods, and proclivities.
What challenges does Whitman’s poetry present for composers setting it?
For me, Whitman’s lists were and are impossible to set—“Song of Myself,” for example, is full of exhaustive catalogs that are thrilling to read but would be dreadful if sung. Whitman’s poetry (and prose) is also strongly, viscerally musical; this is very attractive to me and probably most musicians, but it makes setting him tricky as you have to either wholly embrace or counter his music with your own. The poems I chose to set in Whitman Portrait are singularly list-free and often adapted—I sometimes cut lines, joined poems, and in one case excerpted all the many parenthetical ideas in a single poem to create a new text, a kind of poem-within-the-poem.
Why Pascal? As you put it in the piece’s program note, it is paradoxical for an atheist from Pennsylvania to set a French Christian apologist. Are you a French speaker, or did the language pose another challenge?
I first set Pascal by accident. I wrote a short, six-part a cappella work in 2011 on a whim – as a way to clear the air between composing two large works – and I remembered this line from an Odilon Redon drawing I had seen years earlier: “Le silence éternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie,” “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” Variant 6 – a fabulous Philadelphia-based vocal sextet – performed my setting in 2017, and we all decided that it needed company, so I went back to the source of the Redon quotation—the Pensées (“Thoughts”) of Blaise Pascal—to look for companion texts.
As an atheist, I found much of the Pensées silly, but there were also many delights: in addition to a Christian apologist, Pascal was a celebrated mathematician, physicist, inventor, and aphorist, and I found 20 or so possible short texts to set, with five (in addition to the one I had already set) making the cut. I am not a French speaker, and I wanted to set Pascal’s French without affectation, how a modern French speaker would recite him. So I asked a native French-speaking friend to record himself reciting the texts I chose, which I used as a model; he even reviewed some of my early sketches for the pieces and made some corrections and suggested some variations that I adopted.
Tell me about the structure for the Duo for Violin and Piano. How is the theme and variations structured?
Writing variations is one of the great joys for a composer, and in a way every piece I write is based on some number of variation techniques and/or principles, though obviously not always on a clear-cut theme. The Duo does present a clear theme, which is heard at the beginning of the first movement and toward the ends of the first and second movements. Each movement comprises three variations, of which the middle variations (2 and 5) are quite long and stray far from their source. The first variations of each movement (1 and 4) are briefly recapitulated toward the end of each movement, and the last variations of each movement (3 and 6) are each tonal-ish, intimate codas.
Also, during the middle variation of the second movement, bits of Monteverdi start encroaching, and soon the soprano part of the “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria” from his 1610 Vespers is revealed as the source of these quotations and also my theme. As a result of this, my variations work in two manners: one, as embellishments of an original, simple theme (this is typical of many theme and variations) and two, as a gradual revelation of the source of the work’s primary materials (something that happens more in 20th century variation sets, like Copland’s for solo piano).
Finally, my Duo is an exploration of the pre-history of the sonata, which came out of instrumental arrangements of vocal works that were subjected – in their new, text-free instrumental worlds – to various instrumentally indigenous variations (hence my referencing the Monteverdi sonata – an instrumental “form” – for singer).
A new piece is being premiered on the National Sawdust event. What’s it like?
Lascia fare mi is another variation set, but a continuous type (not sectional, like a theme and variations). Here, the primary material is a five-note set: la, sol, fa, re, mi, or the notes A-G-F-D-E. These five notes are subjected to all manner of permutations, from Renaissance techniques through Bartókian modal transformations, such that the motive is in some way present in literally every bar of this 13-minute duo for two violins.
Mandy Wolman, who will premiere Lascia fare mi with Beverly Shin, commissioned it, and specifically asked that I write a work that responded in some way to the 1973 film Last Tango in Paris which starred Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. Though I had never seen the film I was aware of the scandal it had caused and continues to cause given Schneider’s on-set treatment by Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci, and I was reluctant to engage with it. But Mandy had long loved the film and Brando’s work in general, and she was, at the time, completely unaware of the scandal.
I decided to view the film through her eyes, and in particular focus on the developing relationship between Jean (Schneider) and Paul (Brando), which takes place entirely within the confines of a sparsely-furnished apartment rented by the pair to host their assignations. Essentially, they would never speak of or reference anything outside of their shared experiences there in that room. The work’s obsession with a single, all-pervasive motive (la-sol-fa-re-mi, or given in Italian as “lascia fare mi” or “leave me alone”) is obviously derived from this situation.
Coming up, you have a premiere of a Double Piano Concerto in Chautauqua. You’ve collaborated with artists in Chautauqua before; what does the place mean to you? How did this latest commission come about?
During the summer of 2016 I was the Composer in Residence with Chautauqua Opera. While I was there, maestro JoAnn Falletta came to Chautauqua to conduct a concert with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. She and I had corresponded before but never worked together. Separately, a year earlier, I met the pianist Orion Weiss in Cuba, and we talked about my writing a four-hand concerto for him and Anna Polonsky. Maestro Falletta knew and had worked with them both, so we decided to all collaborate on the project together.
Several years and many scheduling developments later… the concerto will be premiered by Orion Weiss and Shai Wosner with Maestro Falletta and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra this summer (July 30), and then repeated on the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s subscription series in April 2020 with Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky under the baton of Gemma New. There are very few four-hand concertos (I have only heard three: by Czerny, Persichetti, and Schnittke), and I am often inspired by and compose in reaction to existing repertoire, so this was an interesting and challenging work for me.
Chris Grymes’s Open G Series hosts a Jeremy Gill portrait concert at National Sawdust on April 7 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org
Christian Carey is a composer, performer, musicologist, and writer who lives in New Jersey. His work has been published in Perspectives of New Music, Intégral, Open Space, Tempo, Musical America, Time Out New York, Signal to Noise, Early Music America, Sequenza 21, Pop Matters, All About Jazz, and NewMusicBox. Carey’s research on narrativity in late music by Elliott Carter, presented at IRCAM on the composer’s 100th birthday, appears in Hommage à Elliott Carter (Editions Delatour).