Fanfare Magazine Interview
by David DeBoor Canfield ~
Laurie Altman’s universe is a broad one that covers the entire spectrum of music from jazz to classical, and every point in between. The genres in which he has written also are wide-ranging, covering everything from chamber music to opera, and commercials to film scores. He is also well-known as a pianist in both jazz combos and in the concert hall, and has performed in Europe, Mexico and throughout the United States.
His music is published by Warner Brothers and Theodore Presser, and is recorded on several labels. Having reviewed three CDs prior to the present set, and absolutely loving every note I’ve heard from his pen, I was delighted to have this opportunity to interview him in May of 2017, receiving his responses from Switzerland, where he has lived for a number of years.
Laurie, few composers I’ve encountered write so comfortably in both jazz and classical idioms. Did you grow up with equal exposure to both kinds of music, or did the interest in one of them develop out of the other?
I’ve always prided myself in blurring the boundaries between different forms of musical expression. Growing up in New York City, and in a home filled with all kinds of music made such distinctions unnecessary. I lived only four blocks from the Village Vanguard, and a few subway stops away from Carnegie Hall, Harlem, the Cloisters, etc., giving me ample opportunity to “mine the field.” It seemed natural, given this foundation, that my compositions would be both a reflection and a distillation of this merging.
What precipitated your emigration to Switzerland? Does that country have a lively jazz scene? Does it provide as many opportunities for performance as you had in the US?
The move to Switzerland was precipitated by a long-felt desire to make Europe my home. (My wife Jeannine is Swiss, as I am now). History, languages, cuisine and cultural richness all contributed to this decision, but ultimately the move was made to allow for more time for composition, even though it may have made for less jazz composition and performance time. In addition, I would point out that Switzerland does have a deep, active, and stimulating jazz scene replete with marvelous performers.
I note the various settings that have inspired your music (jogging by a river, or travels in Tanzania), but what kind of atmosphere do you require to compose in? Do you prefer utter peace and tranquility, such as Mahler did, or are you capable of writing in a noisy environment, as Villa-Lobos was?
Music composition for me is as essential to daily living as breathing! I require it for my daily sustenance and therefore I write on noisy planes or trains, or in the solitude of my studio. There I am favored with views that bring me closer to the mountains, Lake Thun, and a beautiful scenic bay, all of which are rich in color, activity and inspiration.
Duke Ellington seems to have been a major influence on your creativity compositionally speaking. In what specific ways has his music guided your own? Do you consider him, as some people do, one of the greatest American composers?
Ellington was there with me from the outset. I grew up learning his tunes and playing his charts, which I found to be the embodiment of an ebullient, lyrical, and deeply sensitive approach to musical creation. Add to this his infinite capacity to inculcate classical music expressions and ideas into his imaginative jazz creations made it impossible to be immune from the inspiration and stimulation his work provided. I tend to be somewhat disinclined to tab artists in any genre as the greatest, but suffice it to say that Ellington’s contributions were immense.
Are there other composers who have been particularly influential on your musical aesthetic?
From the beginning, Bach’s music, even his simpler piano works, were for me an ongoing and forever provocative inspiration, but the most intense early influences always came from Stravinsky. The Firebird on first hearing gave me an emotional jolt to aspire to; its composer’s rhythmic manipulations and metrical changes built a framework for my understanding of music. Likewise, his balance and continuity provided elements that continue as the underpinnings of much of my work.
As is well-known, American composer George Rochberg lost a son at an early age, and this tragedy rather radically changed his style of composition. You, too, have lost a son, and I am wondering how that might have affected your writing, beyond the composition of your Piano Sonata No. 5 that you wrote in his memory.
Since my son’s passing, the ongoing evolution of my pieces seems to some extent imprinted by my loss. Olivier remains forever a part of me, and in some manner or other, I often seem to be writing both for and to him. My Piano Sonata No. 5 is the most obvious embodiment of my thoughts and emotions, but since he remains so deeply embedded within me, I am certain his musical presence makes numerous appearances without my needing to consciously direct it.
As I noted in my introductory paragraph above, your music may be found at any point on the spectrum from “genuinely jazz” to “completely classical.” Do you set out to make a work in progress fall at some particular point in that continuum, or do you just “let the chips fall where they may?”
Composing is moving from inwardness to lucidity, requiring a precision of feeling and a turning of the personal into the universal. To succeed at this, a composer must use his or her own musical language, developed from years of listening, experimentation, and even failure. The goal remains a directness and honesty and a lack of gratuitous gestures. In my case, this may require something overtly jazz or classical, but is one of the choices I must make moving forward into each new work.
One of your compositional focuses has been re-setting the music of the music of other composers (such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and—herein—Rachmaninoff and Brahms) filtering their work through your own lens, as it were. How have you selected these composers? Do you consider these works some kind of synthesis of their styles with your own? Are there others you have treated, or are planning to treat in similar fashion?
I listen to music, and as I do, I learn by going where I am impelled to go. I am also deeply touched by innumerable pieces of music written by other composers, often wishing I had written those very notes, those harmonic structures and themes. Using a theme or a phrase from one of these re-imagined pieces allows me to direct my imagination into a kind of duality—a synthesis of me and the other composer, so to speak. This enables me to proceed on a musical journey, perhaps different and fresher than others I might choose.
Why is your Filaments described in the booklet as “re-imagined by Randy Bauer,” who is one of the pianists who perform it?
Randy Bauer, a brilliant American composer who began his studies with me around age nine, was—hands down—the finest and most stimulating student I have ever taught. The original incarnation of Filaments was a two-piano, eight-hand work, and Randy, both in his capacity as my student and dear friend, was in attendance at its world premiere. I can recall his enthusiasm for the piece and his suggestion that it would be a hell of a lot easier to find two pianos with only four hands rather than eight so, with my blessing, he undertook this new version. I and the world are happier for it!
What is the purpose of the brief “voice” of Clara Schumann at the beginning of your Brahms Takes? For those who don’t speak German, what does she say?
Brahms Takes had initially been conceived as a work that would intersperse musical and narrative elements, with each of the narrative elements being labeled a “take,” as in some kind of cinematic project. Within a short time, I found these insertions or “takes” to be somewhat obtrusive making continuity and sense difficult to maintain. What Clara says, which is the only narration I kept, was I believe written in a letter to Brahms, and it translates as, “How deeply excited I am about your Sonata. It is like an echo of a song. I shall always call it the “Regenlied Sonata.”
How did you discover the Sensor Augmented Bass Clarinet that you use in Sonic Drifts? The notes seem to imply that you are a kind of co-inventor of the instrument. Could you describe the unique qualities of this instrument a bit for the readers of Fanfare?
I should state up front that I am in no way a co-inventor of the Sensor Augmented Bass Clarinet. That distinction belongs to the wondrous Matthias Mueller, inventor and clarinetist extraordinaire!! I originally wrote Sonic Drifts for a normal bass clarinet, but it became transformed into its present state after I heard the extraordinary range of sonic possibilities that Matthias’s program was capable of producing. Seeing my enthusiasm, Matthias went to work, finding just the right “sonic drifts” among the rich variety available. The result yielded unimagined sonic venues for me.
I agree this is a stunning work! In your Piano Sonata No. 7, you seem to portray something of the culture and history of Tanzania. How was it that you and your wife happened to visit the country? Do you consider this work some sort of diary of your visit?
Sonata No. 7 is not so much a diary as it is a commentary on both the specificity of our travels through Tanzania as well as a much broader commentary upon the rapaciousness of competing, plundering countries as they tried to extract from this most lovely and wondrous country, without giving anything back to those who had been stolen from.
What is the source of the recording you employ at the beginning and ending of the final movement of this Sonata?
The source is an iPhone recording that my wife Jeannine made as we sat beside members of the Hazda Tribe listening to a man and woman singing songs we presumed to be from the tribal archives or individual creations by these singers. My intention was akin to Alan Lomax’s recordings of field hollerers singing on American plantations. It provided ambiance from a moment caught in time, and seemed to me to be a perfect segue into movement IV as well as a suitable closing. I would desire that any live performance of this work should include this recording, for it provides both context and a coherent reality to what I have tried to portray in this Sonata.
After five discs devoted to your chamber music, what percentage of it is now available on recording? Will you be recording any of your music in other genres?
My direction will be geared towards future recordings of both larger chamber and symphonic works. I have Piano and Violin Concertos that I am desirous to see issued, as well as my Symphony No. 1, and two large chamber works, The Months and What is left for us to see. In addition, I’ve just completed my Piano Sonata No. 10 (Aleppo), and would love having my great friend and wonderful pianist, Clipper Erickson produce a broad overview of these very personal and meaningful works involving piano.