The Eugene Symphony will perform two works by Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman Thursday night in a program that also includes Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale.
Dorman, who turned 40 on Tuesday, met me for coffee Wednesday morning to talk about his music, the challenges of being a living composer in a classical world that mostly programs works by dead people, and the relationship between music and time.
He’s here for a week-long residency with the orchestra, which will play his 2011 “Astrolatry” and 2006 “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!” Thursday night.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you been to Eugene before?
Been to Oregon before?
Been to the Northwest before?
Been to Seattle. That counts, right?
You’re having an amazing season, with your works, including a couple new commissions, being performed by orchestras and ensembles all around the world. Do you manage to go to all the performances of your work?
To all performances, no, absolutely not. Premieres, I try to go. Sometimes it’s just impossible. I have missed premieres, which is kind of unfortunate. But if you write the music clearly enough, it should work without the composer being there.
It must be almost impossible for a composer to miss a first performance. At what point in your life can you let go, and not attend the first performance of a new work? That would be like a playwright missing a premiere of a play.
In composing you are much more specific than in writing for the stage. When someone writes for the stage, what they write is the content of the people on the stage. A lot of it is left to the director.
In concert composition, it’s a very authoritarian exercise. Like, this note is going to be performed at this time by this person. Every note has very specific properties.
When you hear two performance of a Beethoven symphony, even if one is like period-informed and the other is very Romantic style, they are still a lot closer than a classic rendition of Shakespeare is to a very avant-garde production.
Music is an authoritarian system. I am really not as needed as a playwright is. So in terms of missing the premier, it’s actually okay.
Yesterday at the university they played a percussion quartet that I wrote last year. It was premiered last year and recorded but I was not present for the premier or the recording. They played it for me once here. And I did a master class for them in front of the audience, and I told them, this is the first time I’ve heard this played live.
And they’re like, “What?”
What proportion of your compositions now are on commission and how many are, let’s say, on spec?
Probably hundred percent on commission. But – but – but: Continuously I write music without thinking what commission it will go to. I have a lot of ideas lying around. And then when a commission comes in, there’s this material I’ve already written that’s really great. So when a commission comes in I might already have some ideas. There’s a psychological issue with writing on commission, staying ahead of it.
Is commission work stressful?
I have to somehow go around it. It’s like a moral dilemma. Like, why am I writing music? For me, or for money? I want it to always be a natural expression.
Where you get your ideas for music?
I think usually it’s about imagining the medium. Like a commission is for an orchestra piece, a choir piece, a mandolin concerto, whatever it might be. Feeling the medium for what it is, and then finding a way to turn it around and find an angle that I don’t yet know about the medium.
I try to find an angle, like a film director, that I haven’t seen done yet. A new way of looking at it. When you get a commission usually you get the duration of the piece, the ensemble, and the fee.
For me this is what I’d like to do every time: How can we experience seven minutes in a different way? That’s my avenue to the new piece.
A lot of times rhythm will be my starting point. In many ways if you think about a tune that you really like, rhythm plays a huge role. That’s all we have. I focus a lot on rhythm.
Music is an art form in time, and it doesn’t exist without rhythm.
Some time has to pass for a melody to happen. For anything to happen in music, time needs to pass. Events in time: that’s what we call rhythm.
You are very educated in physics and math. So tell me, what is time?
If you go back to the medieval liberal arts, the higher liberal arts were arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Arithmetic is pure number. Geometry is number in space. Music is number in time. And astronomy is number in space and time.
I think they were right. The only way to conceptualize time is through music. It’s like being a sculptor. You’re working with bronze, you get to sculpt bronze. You’re working with time, you get to sculpt time.
To me, music is like sculpting time. That’s what I do.
You’ve done some film work.
I like it mostly because I learn from it. The big frustration in film is you’re not the boss or an authoritarian composer. There’s a director who might say, this doesn’t work for the scene. You learn humility. If the director says it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
Probably half or more of the people who come to Thursday’s concert will be terrified at the idea that there’s music by a contemporary, living composer on the program. But your music is quite accessible. It’s even been called too accessible in one review I read.
Is your music accessible on purpose?
I was thinking about that this morning actually. I feel that every gesture in a piece of music needs to be musical. When you write for an orchestra, the musician playing in the orchestra doesn’t know what you’re doing and they don’t care. Their job is to bring to life what you wrote.
I think the pieces they are doing here Thursday are accessible because there is a musicality that communicates to the audience. This music is not any simpler than a lot of non-accessible composers. But when I write lines, I always try to be musical at an intuitive level. I will not write a line that I can’t sing and express.
And that might be on purpose. If someone thinks that’s not good, they have the right to think that, but I have the right to think they’re wrong. I think the same people who might complain that some of my work is too accessible are the same people who advocate complete freedom and composition.
What are your big goals for the future?
I’m working on an opera now. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s overwhelming. It’s an overwhelming experience. It’s for an opera house in Germany.
And it’s about — it’s related to early German nationalism in the late 19th century and how that is involved with events in Bayreuth after Wagner died… It deals with a very explosive area of history and a very sensitive point in music: Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Was he an early Nazi? A lot of that stuff happened after his death. This opera is that story, in broad strokes.
It premieres in late 2016.
Eugene Symphony: Beethoven’s Pastorale
Danail Rachev, conductor | Steve Hearn and Galen Lemmon, percussion duo | Avner Dorman, composer-in-residence
AVNER DORMAN: Astrolatry
AVNER DORMAN: Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! for percussion and orchestra
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6, “Pastorale”
8 p.m. Thursday April 16
Hult Center Silva Concert Hall