On Thursday, Dec. 7, conducting fellow David Yi will lead the Yale Philharmonia in a program of new orchestral works by several of YSM’s graduate-student composers. We spoke recently with composers Alishan Gezgin (The Passage), Krists Auznieks (Grace), Eli Greenhoe (Wrest), Fjola Evans (Lung), and Liliya Ugay (To the Lost World) about composing and preparing their pieces for performance.
Q: What does it mean to you that the orchestra performing your piece is an ensemble of your peers?
Gezgin: For me, being a composer is most meaningful when I can connect sounds and ideas to real human beings I know and care about. It’s a gift, how deeply embedded this piece feels in the Yale community. Everything in the piece emerges from my time here, the conversations and experiences I’ve shared with friends and teachers, and the countless new ideas those exchanges have brought me.
Auznieks: It is always a pleasure working with people who share your life experience; they are the ones who are most likely to understand the cultural context of where the piece is coming from, and in that sense they are also the best judges of the music.
Greenhoe: I already feel so lucky to have the opportunity to attend YSM and study among friends and colleagues who are some of the finest musicians I know of. To have the opportunity to write a piece specifically for them to play, and knowing the profound depth of musicality among the student body here, is a rare opportunity and (to borrow a cliché) a total dream-come-true.
Evans: I'm really excited to have written this piece for an orchestra of my classmates. Getting to attend the Yale Philharmonia concerts in Woolsey Hall while writing my piece was great. It's rare that you get to see the ensemble you are writing for perform in the same hall your piece will be premiered — being there helped me to viscerally imagine what I wanted my piece to sound and feel like.
Ugay: It means that the musicians of the orchestra are able to connect to my music in a personal way, as many of them know me as a person and/or have already worked with me/played my music before. It deepens the mutual understanding and eases communication between the orchestra and the composer, something a composer can (usually) achieve only by working with one orchestra for years.
Q: Have you written for full orchestra before? If not, what has this experience been like?
Gezgin: The experience was equal parts daunting and exhilarating. This is my first piece for orchestra, and I’ve found it mesmerizing to consider the sheer variety of sounds an orchestra can conjure, the uncountable emotions, sensations, and narratives it can evoke. It’s a kind of magic, to bring so many different voices into a single universe for a little while.
Auznieks: This is the fourth piece I have written for a full orchestra, and orchestral performances are always special. There is something urgently spiritual about so many people being attuned to the same wavelength, sharing the same goals, even if for a moment.
Greenhoe: Though I’ve been lucky enough to write for full orchestra on a number of occasions, tackling this gargantuan ensemble feels profoundly different every time. Not only do I learn a huge amount about composition and orchestration with each piece, but I find that the orchestra itself demands a new approach with every new work.
Evans: This is the second piece I have written for orchestra. The first time felt a bit like a personal sound festival. I was basically trying out every different sonic combination I liked and throwing them all together to see what would happen. For Lung, my piece for the Yale Philharmonia, my orchestrational ideas felt much more driven by the concepts of the piece.
Ugay: The last piece I wrote for full orchestra, Rhapsody in Color, was performed at the Aspen Music Festival this summer, and the earlier one, Oblivion, was performed by the Yale Philharmonia in December 2015. Since then, Oblivion has been performed by three other orchestras. To me, the Yale Philharmonia created the closest interpretation to how I want to hear that piece, and I think the reason for it was the unique communication we had during the rehearsals with both the orchestra and the conductor.
Q: What was the inspiration behind your piece?
Gezgin: This piece (The Passage) is a love affair between four groups: the strings, the woodwinds, the brass, and an inseparable coupling of piano and bass drum. In this strange world, love is expressed through really long notes. Sometimes single voices emerge from the fold. Usually, though, the voices sing together, losing themselves in towering sonorities and ever-changing chorales.
Auznieks: Grace is the second piece in a larger cycle of orchestral pieces that I am currently working on. I was curious to see what would happen if, instead of a musical idea, I placed a particular affect, in this case effervescent, effusive joy, at the center of attention. Can it be examined, deconstructed, and researched in the same way one beholds a musical motive, and can such an approach yield a moving and generous experience? Since it is my fourth and last year at Yale, this piece is a thank-you note to my five composition professors: Hannah Lash, David Lang, Aaron Jay Kernis, Christopher Theofanidis, and Martin Bresnick.
Greenhoe: Wrest deals intimately with the liminality of the unconscious, and specifically with how the mind moves through stages of unconsciousness fluidly and with a kind of inexorable and invisible momentum. It’s a piece about the way we drift through these liminal spaces as we sleep — and the things that we carry with us without understanding why. It’s also an in memoriam, of sorts, to my grandmother Elizabeth Ann Greenhoe, who died this past summer and whose life and death impacted me profoundly.
Evans: I love the dual idea of a lung as a really fragile organ, but also as a rugged balloon that keeps on expanding and contracting no matter what we do. I wanted the players of the orchestra to work together to create a kind of lung: a pulsating, biological, musical mass. While I was writing the piece (Lung), I was thinking a lot about the art museum in Graz, Austria, which is this amazing blobular building that looks a lot like an organ, maybe a lung or a stomach. It's really gross and wonderful! When you look at the skyline of Graz, the art museum seeps over the surrounding medieval architecture, kind of polluting it with its slime. I wanted the piece to feel like that — a kind of uncontainable, constantly transforming hulk.
Ugay: To the Lost World was commissioned by the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra and was premiered at North Carolina State University in April of this year. The topic of the concert was the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and my piece was performed alongside works by Shostakovich and Schnittke. The years during which the Soviet Union existed became the era that, despite the wars and political oppressions, established its own culture, traditions, and beliefs. For many people, the time was represented by a spirit of belonging to a powerful country, spreading the values of equality, human strength, and selfless hard work in the belief of a great future. Nowadays, the remaining attributes from that culture evoke from one side fascination, and from another side a mass sense of nostalgia for the past, for the culture that ended. It is the feeling of nostalgia that I express in this piece because I feel it myself and deeply sense it from others. It is like remembering the special moments from your childhood and associating them with not only yourself but whole generations of a huge country.
Q: How long did it take to compose the piece we’ll hear on Dec. 7?
Gezgin: I started imagining the piece, in terms of its contour, sentiment, and sound-world, toward the end of the summer. The actual note-choosing part of the process, though, happened during a fast and furious few months during this fall semester.
Greenhoe: Wrest came surprisingly quickly. In many ways though, I had been working on this piece since before I got to YSM. A large part of the source material and impetus for the composition came from an unfinished piece for violin and piano that I had been working on in the summer of 2016. After months of trying to find inspiration for the work, I was suddenly struck with the idea of repurposing the older music, and within moments of that epiphany I had a sense of the overall shape of the piece and understood the atmosphere I wanted to create.
Evans: I started working on some preliminary sketches for the piece in the summer, developing some ideas I've had for a long time. The bulk of the work happened six to eight weeks before the deadline.
Ugay: It took me about a month of very intense workdays to write it although as always I started to think about it way before I put the first notes of it on paper.
Q: What are you doing to take full advantage of this experience?
Gezgin: As I gradually learn who will be playing in the ensemble for the concert, I’m thrilled to have conversations about the piece and the experience, helping bring it into the world with both old and new collaborators. A big project like this is a great reason to engage with tons of artists here I haven’t gotten the chance to meet yet.
Greenhoe: Because the level of performance and the quality of the the recording of this piece promises to be so high, I’m planning to send this around to as many competitions and festivals as I can. I’m also excited for the opportunity to further rework and revise the music after the premiere, if need be!
Evans: I'm preparing for the piece to go in a bunch of different directions in the rehearsal process. Now that I've written the notes, the unpredictable and exciting next step is to hear where conductor David Yi and the Philharmonia players take my musical ideas.
Ugay: At this point, all I can do is to know my score perfectly, and to give useful suggestions at the rehearsals. Since this time my piece is much easier, technically, than in 2015, I hope we can spend more time on small details and polish the musical aspects of the performance.