The Inside Story: Allen Brings

Longtime PARMA friend and composer Allen Brings, a New York City native, and member Society of Composers is today’s next featured artist for “The Inside Story,” a blog series that explores the inner workings and personalities of our artists.

Allen Brings.JPG

Who was your first favorite artist(s) growing up?

It was Marian Anderson when I heard her sing Schubert, Bach and Handel on the two 78 rpm records that my father brought home when I was seven years old and that I played over and over again little understanding at that tender age how much I was learning to respond to great art and so to learn how to be expressive in my own art, first as a performer, then also as a composer. My gratitude to her was never more so deeply felt by me when at the end of a concert during which one of her former students had sung I saw her sitting alone in a wheelchair. My only wish was to go to her and tell her how thankful I was for all that she had done. I regret to this day that I could not because I would not have been able to speak through the tears that were already filling my eyes.

When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist/composer/creator?

My wish was never to be a “somebody;” it was rather to continue, first, to play music and so to experience it at first hand and, then, to write more of the music I was beginning to be interested in writing without ever giving up being a performer. As both performer and composer, I became gradually aware that I hoped to be able to demonstrate to both listeners and other performers that what I was offering them was something that would not merely divert or entertain them but would satisfy their human desires to be moved by what they were listening to.

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

It would be to continue teaching what I had learned by practicing my art, something that I had begun to do when I gave my first piano lessons to children when I was about 18. During the 39 years that I taught at Queens College, it was clear to me–and I hope also to my students–that everything I told them and then asked them to do grew not out of reading a “theory” book but out of my own experience as a musician. “This,” I could have said, “is how a melody behaves whether it was composed by Bach, Bartok or Brings” or “This now is how two or more melodies behave when you hear them at the same time.”

NV6104 – Music For Keyboard Instruments - Front Cover


What would you say to an artist performing your work that nobody else knows?

“Let’s both of us look at the printed page to discover all of those indications that the composer wrote on the page to show how the performer should make the music sound to those who are about to listen to it for the first time. That I happen to be the composer is irrelevant. If this music is as expressive as it was intended it to be, what do you have to do to make it sound that way? What, for example, is the character of this passage and how then does it progress to the character that should be  projected by the next passage?” Over the years it has also been my impression that audiences are likely to be aware how well a good performance of an unfamiliar piece reflects on its performer, so___.

What does this album mean to you personally?

I could hardly have known it at the time, but already when I began to learn to play the piano at the age of 7, I was also learning how to think through my fingers, which, however, did only what I told them to do. My earliest attempts to compose took place as I was practicing the piano when I would pause for a minute or two to play something that I had just thought up. It was also this enjoyable habit that warned me throughout my career as a composer not to write too much for the piano to avoid repeating what I had already written. I also discovered that writing for other keyboard instruments would force me to consider writing for them in a way that would be very different from how I learned to write for my own instrument, the piano. This album also demonstrates how distinctive a performance is when heard through the artistry of one outstanding performer. From organist Stephen Tharp, pianist Genevieve Chinn, and harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, I was the grateful recipient of definitive performances of my music and artistry on the highest level. What more can a composer hope for?

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

In the course of listening to any of my compositions, one should never expect to hear the same music twice and therefore to feel the same way twice. The reason, which should be readily apparent even when listening to a single movement in a piece, is that the music is always “becoming.” Because of the ever-changing character of each piece in this album, the listener should feel free to regard it as a concert program the order of which is designed to encourage not only attention to the music but also emotional reactions to it. What might a listener say to why I call the third piece on the program a sonatine? I avoided assigning any suggestive names to each of the Five Pieces (1980), but what might a listener call each of them? Finally, listeners should understand that it is their feelings about what they are hearing that is important, not mine, and that their feelings and mine might not even be the same!

NV6103 – Music For Voices - Front Cover


What does this album mean to you personally?

Each of the works contained on this recording was composed with a different purpose in mind. By way of example, the settings of Donne’s sonnets were intended for an exceptional chorus accompanied by an exceptional orchestra, and perhaps for an exceptional audience as well. The settings of Robert Herrick’s poetry were intended for a changing-voice chorus of students using melodic lines I thought they would readily appreciate. Cor Jesu Trinitatis was intended for a church choir although not as part of a service. The Lament of Rachel expresses in uncompromising terms the emotions of a parent who has lost a child, an emotion that none of us who is a parent hopes ever to experience. Together all of the works released on this recording exhibit aspects of my artistic life that reveal no fewer qualities of my personal life.

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

If these works succeed, they will because of the many feelings they solicit. There are, I will admit, two that are especially dear to me. The first is the setting of lines that I chose from a poem by John Donne that he called Song. I began writing it shortly before graduating college but wasn’t able to finish it. To my surprise, however, as soon as I entered graduate school I easily finished it and now look upon it as one of the most beautiful songs that I know written by any composer and am even beginning to wonder who he was! A few days now go by when I don’t listen to it in my head or hum it to myself and find how moved I am by it. Similar is my setting of Leonard Cochran’s Mountain Song, a text that Father Cochran himself admitted he intended to only be set to music. Even now I’m surprised how easily I was able to find the notes that set this text but how difficult it is to read the last lines to an audience. This song too I listen with pleasure in my head. If there are “specific feelings” that listeners will discover when they hear these two songs, I believe they will quickly know what they are.

Composer Allen Brings upcoming albums MUSIC FOR KEYBOARD INSTRUMENTS and MUSIC FOR VOICES will be available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and available to stream on Spotify Friday, June 9th. 

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