Michael Colgrass Q&A

September 22, 2011 — By Dorothy Hindman

A composer’s music often comes from a moment of inspiration. Do you remember your moments of inspiration for Winds of Nagual: A Musical Fable on the Writings of Carlos Castaneda, and Urban Requiem, the two pieces we’ll hear on Festival Miami’s Frost Wind Ensemble/Music Of Michael Colgrass Concert?

Michael Colgrass: The inspiration for Winds of Nagual was Carlos Castaneda’s books, especially the first four, and the relationship between Carlos, a young, materialistic man, and Don Juan, an elderly pre-Columbian sorcerer. There’s a wonderful conflict between these two men, and the ages they came from: the modern world and the Old World.

Urban Requiem was commissioned by Gary Green and the University of Miami, who asked that it be about the city of Miami. I have a lot of feeling for cities, so I was inspired by the feeling and ethnic mixes in urban areas. Miami has a nice ethnic mix; New York has even more. The excitement of the city, the noise, the chaos, the rude taxi drivers, the irritated pedestrians crossing the street – it’s the wonderful chaos that’s inspiring to me. Conflict is the basis of any kind of creative work: different positions juxtaposed, competing for existence with each other. That’s what cities are like, so that was the inspiration.

Both of these works describe places and stories, to a great extent. How much does the idea of story in music permeate your work?

Colgrass: Winds of Nagual is quite programmatic. I actually depict events that take place in the books. Urban Requiem doesn’t depict events; it’s abstract. I wrote a large wind ensemble piece called Arctic Dreams, and lived in the Arctic for a while, while writing it. There were things there that I wrote about, like the Aurora borealis, how the ice looks when the sun is reflecting off of it, icebergs, and the way they laugh when they throat sing. If I’m writing about something that suggests a program, then I’ll use it.

You are a composer who is very concerned with soul, in a spiritual sense, and infusing your soul into your music. Does this mean you are concerned with connecting with the audience on an emotional or spiritual level?

Colgrass: I don’t know, because I don’t think about the audience when writing, I think about the performers. Of course, they are a form of audience. I want the piece to be suitable for the performers, to exploit them, and showcase them well. That’s what’s on my mind. As far as soul is concerned, I don’t think I would write music if I didn’t feel driven by my soul. As abstract and abstruse a thing a soul is to define, there’s something there that excites me, and I’d like to share it. I’d like other people to know what I’m feeling when I’ve written the music. And you may or may not pick up on it, and I have no way of guaranteeing that.

You have said before that as a composer, your first responsibility is to the performer. What kinds of performer issues influenced your wind ensemble compositions?

Colgrass: When I wrote the Winds of Nagual, I didn’t know the performers, but I was very influenced by the Castaneda books.

The performers in the Urban Requiem are four saxophone soloists. My job was to differentiate the soprano saxophone from the alto saxophone, from tenor, from baritone. For that reason, I set up what I call four “neighborhoods,” one for each of the players. They’re surrounded by musicians that match. I was thinking of complementing, for example, the alto saxophone with an alto flute and harp; the high soprano saxophone with piccolo, high clarinet and glockenspiel; and the low baritone saxophone with timpani and string basses. The orchestration was directly affected by the nature of the instruments that I was working to accommodate.


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