Composer Interview with Jonathan Sheffer

We checked in with composer and Grammy-nominated conductor Jonathan Sheffer to talk about the upcoming release of his epic narrated orchestral work, THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS, out April 8th 2016, and we’re pleased to share below his words on process and inspiration:

What attracted you to using the nearly-900-year-old poem “TheConference of the Birds” as the inspiration for a composition for orchestra?

initial idea arose from a meditation experience, during which I heard all of the surrounding birdcalls stop suddenly. Not only did that startle me out of my meditation, but, being a conductor, I wondered for months what could make hundreds of birds of all different species all stop singing together! When the commission came from Cabrillo, I spent a few weeks transcribing birdcalls and trying to make a purely abstract piece out of that. But I felt I had little to add post-Messiaen, and I was quite discouraged by my efforts at bird counterpoint when I happened upon the poem in a bookstore. Its message resonated with me, and I began writing the narration immediately.
 The poem, through avian eyes, speaks of a world in distress, one in need of firm leadership (sound familiar?). The beauty of the poem is that the birds, through their epic journey, discover that self-love is the basis of all strength, both individual and communal.
Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonatodoes a fantastic job narrating this release, from the story to the birds themselves. What led you to choosing Joyce as the narrator?
She is such a terrific actress in opera, I just thought she would be a natural to perform a spoken word piece. It turned out I was right! We worked together a while back, and I asked her to do this narration, and she responded immediately. During the recording, I encouraged her to go quite far out with silly voices, and playing up the excitement of the story.

What are some of the ways in which conducting has strengthened your composing, or vice versa? Are there unique challenges involved in doing both well?
Being a composer who learned to conduct later, I am constantly learning, broadening my awareness of the extraordinary details of composition, of form and orchestration. I also think that composers need to make music, to keep a physical contact with the activity that might become rather dry on the page without the responsibility and the joy of performance.

As well, composing has given me confidence as a conductor: not only do I appreciate the accumulation of detail of each work, but I identify with the sense that every piece of music begins with a blank page, one that is filled with specific musical ideas. Conducting allowed me to get under the skin of the music, and not feel that “masterpieces” arrived sui generis, but resulted from painstaking working-out of discreet ideas. Beethoven was a far more profound composer than I, but he still took up a pen, as I have done as well. At the same time, the humility of contact with great music, in contrast to my efforts, is grounding, like being onstage in the chorus, thrilled at the talent of the soloist.

You founded both the Eos Orchestra and Red {an orchestra}, focusing on the programming of new concert experiences – from your experience, what practices would you recommend for effectively increasing attention around new music?
Looking back at those two orchestras, I have an enormous sense of accomplishment. The aim was always to experiment, with concert formats, programming, and artistic collaboration. We succeeded by every measure, and if our hour of strutting the stage was cut short, it doesn’t lessen our contribution. I feel we were part of a stream of change that continues to flow in concerts and opera production, a stream that now continues to run in new venues and with new ideas that have worked their way into the mainstream. Very often, when I read about this or that new things, I can say, “Yeah, we did that” and feel a kinship with every new venture. My focus was on changing the listening experience for the audience, in concerts and opera productions. I thought if we could make the narrative of each concert clear, then we would succeed in drawing people closer to the music. I think we did that with great success, over and over.
Through Celluloid Copland, you and the Eos Orchestra were the first to record on CD Copland’s scores for From Sorcery to Science, The City, The Cummington Story, and The North Star. How did you come across these works? Why had they not been previously committed to CD? And what made you decide to change this?

One of my principal areas of interest with Eos was the rediscovery of lesser-known music by well-known composers, particularly works that has effectively disappeared from the public. Paul Bowles’s music as the first of these rediscoveries, and Copland was the second. I researched his music at the Library of Congress and was delighted to find all of the music we recorded on our Grammy-nominated CD, work from little-know documentaries from the 1940s and music from the 1939 World’s Fair. For me, and I hope for our audience, these works not only filled in an important gap in Copland’s work, but also demonstrated how he learned the craft of film composition mid-career.
You seem to work frequently in mediums which combine visual elements with music; in particular you’ve worked with a number of dance companies over the years, including the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Martha Graham Dance Company. What qualities in your music would you say recommend themselves particularly well to visual and choreographic interpretation?
It depends upon the ballet, and the choreographer. For a story ballet, highly colorful and evocative music, such as is found in my piece, works well, giving the dancers inspiration in beauty. By and large, strong rhythm is the best music to dance to!

Ultimately, what would you like listeners to take away after having heard THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS?
An appreciation of how colorful the sound of a large orchestra can be, and a sense of having been on a spiritual journey with the birds themselves.

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