Joseph Summer and The Inside Story: Scuba Diving and Classical Music

Long-time PARMA artist Joseph Summer founder of The Shakespeare Concert Series is now featured on the chamber compilation FLEETING REALMS. Today, Summer is out next featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner works and personalities of our artists. Read on to find out what his guilty pleasure is.

If you could spend creative time anywhere in the world, where would it be? And why?

I am fortunate to have the wherewithal to compose in sundry distant ports. The only obstacle to permanently removing myself from New England is the practical difficulty of pursuing performances and projects in the tropics. “They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier,” the penultimate offering on this disc was – in fact – written in the Virgin Islands, last century, while my family was in exile there. It could hardly be considered privation to be banished to St Thomas, but I must say that it was difficult to keep my paper dry. If, however, I could leave behind what I deem my responsibilities to effect productions of my music without feeling the pangs of conscience such dereliction would evince, then I’d probably remove myself and family to either  Raja Ampat in the Indonesian state of Irian Jaya or Kavieng in the New Ireland province of Papua New Guinea – assuming that I could bring my music writing implements with me. The principal disincentive to simply picking up and doing so is the logistical stumbling block of supplies.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Doubtless my and my wife’s obsession with the ocean. We make too many decisions based on the likelihood of encountering cephalopods in our sojourns. When we need to decide between one location or another to do a lecture or concert, we look on the map for the closest beach; and I do research on the dive companies, water temps, and the depths of the reefs. On our recent trip to Korea, ostensibly to set up performances for 2018, I found myself ineluctably drawn to the sea; teaming up with a Korean underwater CSI diver (and chief of the Seogwipo Police) and the chief of detectives for Jeju Island. We dove for two days off the rocky coast. In between dives (and a strangely tautological submarine ride) and trekking and touring and eating (I do enjoy my sea creatures live, but somehow the same does not apply on the plate) I did manage to arrange the Jeju leg of the 2018 Shakespeare Concerts tour.

If you could do any job in the world and make a living at it, what would that be?

Luckily for me, though my first scuba dives were in 1972, I didn’t become licensed until this century; lucky because I am afraid I might have wanted to become a professional diver of some sort, lucky because my refusal to condescend to take the PADI course until I was over a half century old made it impossible for me to be a professional diver of any sort until I was way past being interested in working underwater. Back in the summer of 72, my brother Mitchell and I (both of us minors) flew to Cozumel, Mexico, by ourselves (after lying to authorities in the airport in Florida. No passports, no legal permission to leave the country from our mother or father. Those were different times.) There, we rented motorbikes and drove to Laguna Chancunab, where resided a dive shop and its ancient mariner operator. I approached him and told him we wanted to dive. “Are you licensed?” he asked. I replied affirmatively for Mitchell and myself and the proprietor pointed to the tanks and equipment. It’s a long story, how my brother injured his ears, how I’d learned to dive from the US Navy manual, what happened to the world’s largest brain coral, how we were the only tourists on the island – too long for this forum – but after frolicking for a fortnight full fathom five, I returned to the United States and matriculated at Oberlin Conservatory, majoring in composition.

Fleeting Realms

Was there a piece on your album that you found more difficult to compose/perform than the others?

In the nineties, we moved to the American Paradise, the Virgin Islands.  Looking down upon Magen’s Bay (which when we resided there full time was deemed one of the world’s top ten beaches) from our mountain aerie, I should have felt wanting for nothing; but composing in a rain forest above a denim sea was problematic. First: there were the blackouts, power outages more frequent than power “onnages.” Composing by candlelight sounds romantic and inspirational, but it’s the opposite. Second: lacking a piano there was frustrating. Occasionally I would have the opportunity to visit Ethel Mitchell’s well-maintained instrument that overlooked the Mahogany Run Golf Course, but such pleasure was infrequent. Third: I had just begun composing music to Shakespeare in the Virgin Islands, and lacked any performance opportunities, so I had no way of evaluating my work. Everything was in my head, abstracted from reality. Did the music work? I thought it might, but I could only rely upon my own critical faculties and I never really know whether I am self-aware or unaware.

Is there a specific feeling you want listeners to tune into when hearing your work?

I want the listener to become immersed in an alternate reality, unaware of her quotidian concerns. For my music to succeed, an altered state must emerge in her consciousness. In a sense, I am attempting to replicate the altered state I enter when submerged in the ocean. An unearthly serenity overwhelms me as I drift down in the deep, reaching perfection at five fathoms, of course. Adrift in the blue, suspended in a whirling chaos of red tooth triggers and schooling bannerfish, I recognize the agglomeration as a living analogy to the patterns I write in my music. The fish are notes, and though they have their own individual existence, it is only as elements of the swirling biomass that they achieve an aesthetic meaning. I recently completed two string quartets in which I attempt to describe some of the creatures I encounter beneath the waves.

What does this album mean to you personally?

On this album are two scenes from Hamlet initially written without conscious intent to create an opera. However, that changed during a sojourn to the Virgin Islands in 2004. I’d arranged for concerts there, featuring Maria Ferrante, soprano; Alan Schneider, tenor; pianist Miroslav Sekera;  and harpist Anna Reinersmann. These four, and music director John McGinn, in effect, created The Shakespeare Concerts with me. Between rehearsals and concerts on St Thomas, I would drive the artists to beaches on the island my family considered home. I think it was at Magen’s Bay that Alan Schneider told me it was time to stop “treading water”, and truly get to work on the opera I was obviously intending on writing. Following weak demurrals on my part, Alan used a big toe to sketch in the sand his ideas about how I should proceed. Two years later, Hamlet was finished. Just a few days ago I received material requiring approval for the imminent release of “Fleeting Realms,” and on the very same day came the news that the premiere of the full score excerpts from Hamlet had been funded. This album then is the penultimate step in my Hamlet’s journey to fruition.

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