Composer, saxophonist Steve Lehman fields questions about his work and his upcoming piece, Khalid.
Can you talk a bit about how you found yourself choosing to study music composition first at Wesleyan while concurrently at the Hartt School of Music and then later at Columbia? What attracted you to these institutions?
Well, my parents are both very musical, so music has always been a big part of my life. As far as the specific choice to attend Wesleyan, I think I was drawn to the music program there because of the stellar faculty and the fact that the university as a whole is very rigorous academically. And I found many wonderful mentors there, like Anthony Braxton, Jay Hoggard, and Pheeroan akLaff. Alvin Lucier is also on the faculty there and I was able to spend a couple of years studying South Indian music as well. I studied at Hartt specifically to work with saxophonist/composer Jackie McLean, who has been an idol of mine since I was a kid. And at Columbia, I worked primarily with George Lewis and Tristan Murail, and also with Fabein Levy, Brad Garton, and Fred Lerdahl — all composers I look up to a great deal.
You are involved in many contexts: performer, composer, bandleader, sideman and scholar. How do all of these disciplines inform one another? How would, say, your experience performing in a jazz context inform your fully notated compositional work? Do you find that there are moments of dissonance between your activities (and not just in terms of time management)?
I wish I had a good succinct answer for that. I’m really just trying to pursue the things about music that excite me the most, and they come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. With all of the musical activities you mention, I’m most interested in connecting with people in a meaningful way — the social aspect of it. And that can happen in performance, in rehearsal, and also through formal and informal discourse about all of this music that we all care about so much.
In writings on your music, you cite the seemingly disparate practices of African American improvised music and French Spectral composition as important in the formation of your own work as a composer. Can you go into it a little bit here? What are the common concerns of the two disciplines? How do they feed each other and how do they feed you?
Yes, well, a lot of my recent scholarship has dealt with the overlapping histories of these two musical communities. And what I keep coming back to is this idea of musical thresholds, which often manifest as thresholds of perception in the listener. That space between timbre and harmony; pulse and duration; structure and spontaneity. I think the most expressive instrumental music, of any kind, often takes advantage of those kinds of perceptual boundaries, and I think it’s a compositional preoccupation that’s at the heart of Afrological forms of improvisation and much of French spectral music as well.
You mention Grisey and music theorist Jean-Luc Herve as expanding upon ideas of the perception of rhythm and attempting to find that thin line or ‘rhythmic threshold’ between the simple repetitions of a pulse and the loss of pulse by rhythmic complexity. Is creating this space a priority in Khalid?
Right. That’s a kind of rough paraphrase of a comment that Hervé made about Grisey’s music, and it’s making reference, in particular, to the first and third movements of Vortex Temporum. I suppose Khalid does deal with that idea in some important ways. And the whole notion of creating a meaningful and expressive sense of pulse without having to rely of structural repetition is definitely something I think about a lot. That said, there is actually a fair amount of surface level repetition in Khalid — something that is somewhat unusual in my music. If there is a rhythmic or perceptual threshold that this piece explores, it’s probably the boundary between serial and segregated modes of listening. Basically, whether you’re hearing sound events as part of one unified stream of information, or as two or more parallel streams. Rhythm and alignment can play an important role in determining a particular mode of listening, but things like timbre, register, and dynamics also play a big part, as you can imagine.
The piece, scored for piano and percussion, focuses on a right hand arpeggio in the piano, which although the shape of the gesture repeats, the pitches change ever so slightly, with the highest pitch constantly shifting its position in the beat. The others also appear repetitive at first, but like the piano, shift their attacks and they all function to produce layers of rhythms. How did you conceive of this rhythmic structure? Are you using spectral harmonies?
Yes, well the structure of the piece is really centered around the expressive potential of all of these kinds of subtle shifts. And, in particular, it really revolves around a small collection of rhythmic devices that I’ve been developing and refining over the past four or five years. If the piece is working well, there can be moments when the music seems to speed up, slow down, and stand still simultaneously. And I think that kind of musical structure can be very meaningful and even emotional when it’s presented in the right way. So, my hope is that Khalid will at least evoke some of that. As for the harmony, I’d say that the “attitude” towards harmony in this piece is decidedly spectral. Suffice to say that much of the pitch material in the piece is informed by the acoustic properties of both the piano and the vibraphone.
What does the title, Khalid make reference to?
Khalid is an Arabic name which means “immortal” or “eternal.” At first, I considered calling the piece “Khalid/Kaleid/Collide,” since many aspects of the piece strike me as rather kaleidoscopic. But in the end, I decided to keep it simple, and I suppose more open to interpretation.
How has your experience been working with the Talea Ensemble? Consideration of personnel is an important part of your working method. Was it here?
It’s been wonderful working with Talea. This is one of the premiere new music ensembles on the planet, so it’s been a real gift to work with them. And yes, I think the personnel, and the personal relationships have played a big role in bringing this piece to life. Anthony Cheung is one of my favorite young composers and a really beautiful person in general. And we have been keeping abreast of each other’s work and looking for ways to support each other since we first met at Columbia. So, Anthony comes to this piece with a really keen understanding of my work as both a composer and a performer. And he’s able to draw from that body of information in bringing the piece to life, which is really amazing. Same for Alex Lipowski and Matt Gold, who have both spent time working on the percussion part for Khalid. These guys are so meticulous and such outspoken advocates for new music, it’s wonderful.
SYNCHRONICITIES: NEW WORKS
PREMIERES BY LEWIS, TRAPANI, LEHMAN, CHEUNG
DECEMBER 14, 2012 8:00 PM
MANNES COLLEGE OF MUSIC
150 W 85TH STREET
NEW YORK, NY 10024