by Daniel Hathaway
Margaret Brouwer’s Path at Sunrise, Masses of Flowers, was premiered by the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra under Robert L. Cronquist on Sunday, April 11 during its 75th anniversary concert at Severance Hall. The piece was made possible by a Commissioning Music USA award from Meet the Composer. Margaret Brouwer retired in 2008 from her position as professor of composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music. We spoke with her by phone at her home in Cleveland.
Daniel Hathaway: I assume you’ve had a bit more time to compose since you retired from teaching.
Margaret Brouwer: I have! It’s been wonderful and it’s lucky because I’ve had several big commissions and it’s been terrific to be able to just concentrate on that without trying to fit it in amongst many other things”.
DH: You just had a premiere in Dallas in January.
MB: I did — with the Dallas Symphony. It went beautifully. It really did. It was just a terrific experience. Got terrific reviews, and you know, there was actually a lot of press before the concert and some radio coverage. And you know there’s a new music group there called Voices of Change — they’ve been around for a long time, probably 20, 35 years — they piggybacked on the Dallas Symphony bringing me down there and so the Dallas Symphony played the concert premiere on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and then they scheduled a concert on Sunday where they did several of my chamber pieces.
DH: Fabulous. They should have given you the key to the city for the weekend.
MB: I know! It was terrific and they were wonderful. A lot of people in that group are members of the Dallas Symphony, so it’s a very high-level group, and they gave two wonderful performances of several chamber pieces in addition to the new concerto for viola and orchestra. It was hard to get back and just get to work again.
DH: Didn’t you play violin in Dallas at one point?
MB: I did — a long time ago. I started out my career as a violinist — in fact I went to Oberlin as a performance major in violin. I was composing, but somehow I just hadn’t thought about doing composing as a career. I just thought of it as a fun thing to do, but of course I loved playing the violin too. I started out my career as an orchestral musician, but as I got to writing more and more and playing more and more, I just realized that the writing was the thing that I loved the most — and I think that I was the best at, too. It was hard giving up the violin. For a long time, I kept doing both even when I wasn’t earning my living that way anymore, but eventually I decided to put it away for a year and see what happened, and I’ve never gotten it out again! I just wasn’t getting to practicing until 11 o’clock at night what with teaching and composing and everything. It was a busy schedule.
DH: Let’s talk a bit about the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra commission. How did they link up with you?
MB: The Cleveland Women’s Orchestra called me last year and said they were interested in commissioning me for an important concert — their 75th anniversary in Severance Hall — they were going to apply for a MTC grant and asked if I would be interested in doing this. I said sure, so they applied. Then they heard they had gotten the grant. It’s a big honor, really. Meet the Composer is a national organization and they’ve been around for a long time too. They’re actually one of the great supporters of living composers.
DH: Tell us about the process of conceiving and crafting the piece. What went through your mind originally?
MB: You know the instrumentation you’re working with, and you know the approximate length of the piece, then it’s just a matter of coming up with an idea that seems strong enough to sustain itself throughout the piece. At the beginning of a piece, I always spend a lot of time just thinking about the instruments, the musicians and what I’d like to hear those instruments playing. And I fiddle around a little bit at the piano too trying different ideas, because usually my pieces grow either out of a melodic idea, a rhythmic idea or a set of chords. With this piece — I started it last summer — I was living in New York for a while and I was walking my dog every day in the grounds — like a park — around the M. of Natural History. They have these wonderful flower beds — I don’t think you could even call them flower beds, it’s more like an English garden where it’s just these jumbles of different kinds of flowers just massed in together. It’s so beautiful. Every time I would stop and look at it and there are all these patterns that develop from the different texture and colors and heights and sizes of the flowers and so forth, and I started thinking that would make a really terrific, loose idea of a type of form to follow in the piece I was then working on. That’s why I called it “Masses of Flowers” — I really thought and thought and I couldn’t come up with a better name that would tell this idea of all these flowers jumbled close together in this great array of splashes of color. The piece goes from these splashes of color to other more gentle, pastel sounds and colors, and it has sort of a melody in it, a line that imagines walking through the flowers and the thoughts and emotions that one goes through. It starts like very, very early in the morning — I’m often an early morning person — I like the quiet when the sun is just coming up. As far as the form and the visual element of the way the sounds work for me, it’s inspired by nature quite a bit.
DH: Your description of those flowers reminds me of visiting the gardens at Sissinghurst in England — which are “English” gardens as opposed to formal French gardens. Of course they’re incredibly planned as well, but they’re made to look as though nature just made them happen.
MB: It’s probably true for these flowers too. To make all those colors go so beautifully together there has to be a plan! But you’re right — it just looks like these flowers are going wild all growing together.
DH: How long is the piece?
MB: It’s only about six minutes long. It’s like a concert opener, that’s what they wanted.
DH: How long has the Women’s Orchestra been working on it?
MB: Since late January. They rehearse once a week on Mondays. Some orchestras like the Dallas Symphony which rehearse twice in a day don’t even start on a new piece until two days before the concert.
DH: Have you sat in on a rehearsal or two?
MB: I have. I was there for two rehearsals for two weeks in a row. I think it’s going to be really good. I actually had a lot of fun working with them. It’s just terrific to see a big group of people, many of whom who aren’t professional musicians but who are really committed to music really trying to make something beautiful together, and delving into a piece they haven’t listened to a million times on a recording. Of course, they’ve never heard this, because it’s never been played before! They seem to be having a lot of fun with it. There are a lot of percussion instruments, which is something I like to use, and I’m asking them to do slightly unusual things — which I usually do — so we’ve had a lot of fun trying different ways to use the mallets, and trying different mallets to see what sounded the best. It’s been a lot of fun.
DH: How do you compose? Do you use paper & pencil, or are you more high tech in your approach?
MB: I start with paper & pencil. I don’t compose at the computer — I’ve found that’s the fastest way to write something that’s totally uninspired! I do put the music into the computer as I go along, so probably every other day or so I spend a little bit of time at the computer and put in what I’ve written, but sometimes I get an idea and I keep going at the computer, but I always end up throwing it away. I think about the music a lot in my head and I do print it out after I put it into the computer because I like to sit in a comfortable chair and go through the music from the beginning to the point that I’m at. I like to go through it in time — I think that’s really important to get a sense of whether the flow is good, whether things are evolving at the right pace, whether it’s going on too long, whether you’re not going on long enough before something changes. I do that every day, and as I’m going through, I make little marks with a pencil trying to keep going in tempo, because I think you have to be going along in the proper time. If you slow down or speed up, then you don’t get the feeling of what’s really happening in the music. But then I go back and I change things constantly. A given melody that probably sounds completely natural that just came off the top of my head I may re-write twenty times. Which is a handy thing with a computer — I’m wasting a lot of ink and paper, but it’s so much easier to change things in the computer and just print out a new page or two. Before I used the computer, I’d have inserts — then I’d have all these inserts around me while I going through the piece, but you have to be really on the ball to pull the right insert in at the right moment when you’re going through it.
DH: I remember working with one of Beethoven’s sketchbooks in graduate school where he was inventing the theme of the scherzo of the ninth symphony. That went through dozens of iterations until he finally came up with something natural and clean sounding.
MB: It’s not easy. Rhythms too. It’s amazing the difference it makes just changing a half beat here and there — if maybe a note’s a little too long or a little too short, it makes all the difference in how a melody flows. So I probably change rhythms as much as anything until I get it to sound completely natural. I guess Mozart was able to get it down right the first time, although I think he probably went over it a lot in his head. One thing about the classical period, it’s probably easier to keep track of everything in your head — than when you’re doing this with a contemporary piece.
DH: When I called, you mentioned that you were just about to sit down and do some writing. What’s your next project?
MB: At the moment, I’m cleaning up some pieces from last winter. I had two big orchestral premieres with the Detroit Symphony and with the American Composers Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. I was so busy getting started on these two pieces that I never had time to go back and make the corrections for things that came up during rehearsals. So that’s what I’m doing now — a very boring job! But I wanted to do it before I completely forget what needed to be done. The next piece that I am getting started on — slightly so far — is a piece that’s been commissioned by a family in Cleveland, Henry and Mary Doll. In some cities there are groups of lay people who do get together and commission composers. It’s like clubs where they decide to commission composers. I think it’s such a wonderful idea and I’m so glad that the Dolls thought of this. I didn’t know them at all, but now I’m getting acquainted with them. They have a summer “camp” in Canada that’s been in their family for over a hundred years, and Henry Doll got the idea that — it’s a very poetic kind of place, and it has a lot of mysticism about it with a lake and all the birds. It’s very isolated — there are no roads going to it — you have to take a boat to go there. They flew me up there a couple of summers ago and they just decided they would like to have a piece written — they said I could use my inspiration in whatever way I want. They’re not telling me anything I have to do in the piece, but they just wanted a piece that would be inspired by the place. It’s not going to be performed at their place because obviously it would be about impossible to get musicians and an audience there, but it’s a really great idea. I’ve been having a lot of fun thinking about the time I spent there and getting musical ideas, which I think is going to be a really great piece, actually. But I’m just at the very beginning stages on that.