JD: Back when we started this, you were talking about story. Do you ever think through the kind of “story” you’re trying to conjure up, or communicate? Or is it looser than that?
MB: Well, it really depends on the piece. I’m way more programmatically driven than a lot of composers. Maybe it’s not that fashionable to do that anymore.
JD: Well, look at Mass Transmission. That has text, and a really tender story, and the mother/child relationship, and the technology breakthrough. But I would say that the story is not about the technology, even though that’s the context. I would say that it’s about love between a mother and a daughter. The attempts to communicate when another person is extremely far away created the possibility of seeing the heart-connection, the tenderness to the piece. In spite of all the rhythmic demands of it, to me it’s about tenderness.
MB: Absolutely! Any time you’re singing a text, you have a literal story. But there can be gradations to that. Alternative Energy is a purely symphonic piece (although it does have electronic sounds which allow me to bring in some content). That piece is a kind of story of energy through the Ages. Musically, I wanted to take bigger and bigger propulsive orchestral textures and blow them into the next movement. The “energy symphony” aspect of the piece is as much in service of the musical goals of the piece as vice versa.
There might be something simple, on a musical level, that is important to include (at least from my perspective as the composer) to help create the narrative. For example, I have a movement of a piece that is called “Aerosol Melody Hanalei.” Essentially the idea was: What if you have a melody that evaporates at cadence points? So, I thought, “How can I make that happen?” The idea of a dreamy context, like sitting on the North shore of Kauai, and you just hear a melody, and it kind of disappears. That became woodwinds doing kind of a bend-y line at cadences. String harmonics envelop them and float away. But it’s the clarity of a mini-drama that I like to have in any musical piece.
If a piece is only about spitting out a note into another note, (and I used to do that plenty, like many composers), then it all starts to feel very small-scale to me. I like narrative, whether it be a literal narrative, or whether it be a mini-musical narrative.
JD: Do you have any thoughts about the increase of fear in the world? There are pervading questions about becoming isolationist, or not, will there be a revolution, etc.? Does music have a role in this?
MB: I really grapple with that question about how music and the Arts can respond to political events. To be honest, for a long time I felt like the more overtly political a piece of music gets, the less interesting it is for me, personally, because the political message becomes so distracting.
JD: And it becomes dated.
MB: It becomes incredibly dated. So, in my work, I like to take a more dramatic approach to themes. In Liquid Interface, it began as a kind of water symphony. Like La Mer but in a more dramatic approach to water – where we start with ice, and glaciers melting in the Antarctic, including recordings of glaciers calving. Then we see that, all the way through each movement, the world gets hotter. Then we get to water on a micro-level, including “Katrina” – the New Orleans movement, and music of evaporation. You can see this in the form of the piece, and certainly in the narrative of the symphony where every movement gets warmer. This is a response to climate change. But I don’t know if I’m the one to be able to integrate a political message into a piece. I think all we can do is impact people.
JD: It brings up the question of whether we can help people find beauty in a world that is increasingly ugly, brought on by our social and political situations. Can we be the healing balm, the solace, for this problem? Is it something we need to do intentionally, or does it just happen?
MB: I like what you said about it! Just providing the depth of experience is, in itself, very powerful. I think there are ways to respond to things without hitting it directly on the head. I’m working on a piece right now for the Kennedy Center. the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth is this Spring (2017). I’m taking the approach which is a hybrid political/poetic approach. Namely, look at his moon-shot speech. The idea that we can do things that are completely impossible. We can solve climate change; we can address racial issues. In his case, it was: We can walk on the moon. And I thought, why don’t I find some American poetry that also looks to the moon, and looks at the idea of voyage – then collide those. So I found an incredible poem by Walt Whitman, “Passage to India,” that starts by saying: Isn’t it incredible that we have technology that can take us to India. He ends up talking about a passage to the moon! JFK’s speeches will be trailing this narrative. The singer will be singing “Oh, sail forth!”
To me, that’s the way I can handle the question that we can all actually accomplish things if we have vision. And hopefully, when the listener hears that work, they will be reminded that there are things that we’ve done that are basically impossible. And if we have the vision, we can do it.