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Conversation with Avner Dorman


Avner Dorman
Avner Dorman

This week Israeli conductor Asher Fisch makes his Boston Symphony Orchestra subscription series debut with a program that includes the Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman’s Astrolatry. This piece was an Alabama Symphony commission from 2011 and was inspired by the night sky. Dorman’s music has been performed by orchestras across the US and Europe and he is currently on the faculty of the Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. BMint spoke with him at his hotel following a BSO rehearsal.

Benjamin Pesetsky: This is the first time the BSO has played one of your works, but it’s not a premiere. In fact, for a new piece, it’s actually kind of an old piece. How did Astrolatry travel from the Alabama Symphony in 2011 to the BSO today?

Avner Dorman: It was Asher really. He emailed me probably a couple years ago when the BSO engaged him, and just asked what I’d been working on, so I sent him recordings of three pieces and this was one. He likes to learn new pieces, he’s not like some conductors who will conduct a piece a million times. He did my music first in 2000, or 2001. He was a judge on a performance competition in Israel and the pianist that won that competition played a piece of mine in the last round. And so we’ve known each other since then and essentially he suggested this piece to the BSO management. I know that Andris Nelsons has done some of my works in Europe, so maybe that had something to do with it, but essentially I got an email confirming they would do it and I said “yes, great, thank you!”

Does the piece sound very different in the hands of a different conductor and orchestra?

Definitely. It’s mostly the way the leader feels the beat. Asher brings a certain flow, and I think the fact that we’re both from Israel played a strong role in his understanding my rhythms, colors and modes. It was definitely different today when I heard it in rehearsal. And I think it should be the same standard repertoire. All the intellectual work is important, but in the end there’s something intuitive that conductors just sense.

Did you make any revisions to the score between the premiere and now?

There was a little spot I shortened a bit. There’s some notation differences mostly. The fast movement is polyrhythmic, where the percussion are in four and the melody is in 5/8, and then other parts of the orchestra alternate. And I originally wrote everything in 4/4 because I thought, well, 4/4 is the easiest to read. But because the main melody is moving in 5/8 they kind of only met each other every five bars. And that proved to be sort of impractical. So now most of that section is notated in five and the percussion only meets the others every four bars. And that seems to work better. First because melodically you want to have sort of a downbeat more often. I also think because the percussion make a lot of noise and they have a lot of color, but it’s only three or four people. Once you have the whole string section playing, 60 or so people have to coordinate. For them to realize “oh yeah I’m in the third bar of this juxtaposed meter” is harder than for a percussionist. For one person it’s easier to figure it out and do it because nobody is doubling him.

So this is a notational problem about how to divide the rhythm and present it to the players so that it comes off the page most easily.

Yes. By saying it’s a presentational issue it actually goes to the core of how orchestra music works. It starts with the composer’s idea, then the composer needs to notate the idea in a way that the orchestra can actually bring that idea to life. And the notation actually makes a huge difference. That’s essentially what we’re talking about. What is the most practical way to communicate to the musicians what needs to be communicated to the audience? The famous example is Rite of Spring. There’s the 4/4 version or the 3/3 version for Stravinsky, and I think it’s because Stravinsky notated what he thought, and not what would work the most practically in life. I think it’s actually a pretty deep issue. Again, it didn’t change the sounds of the music, but it did change the score.

Your program notes offer a narrative for your piece involving the night sky. Do stories and images help you compose, or is it more an interpretation for the audience?

I would have to say it’s kind of a playful narrative in the sense that I’m not trying to be too serious about it. I did get an idea after an experience of suddenly being in the country on a starry night. It’s mostly about what we experience when we walk out of a lit room into the dark outside. You don’t see anything in the beginning, but soon you start seeing the stars. That’s really the thing that inspired the form of the first half. I think especially for audiences that are not professional or high-level amateurs, sometimes it’s difficult to follow new music. So why not have a narrative? But on the other hand, I wouldn’t read too much into it because it’s really kind of a broad context into which I threw my musical thoughts.

How do you begin a new piece?

My style is to bounce back and forth between two things that perhaps seem like the opposites. One is planning about broad large scale thoughts. For example, in Astrolatry there’s a slow lamento line, like an old passacaglia idea over a lamento bass. The first note is probably is 90 measures. It’s very, very long. I draw things, I use geometry to sense what proportions work. Then on the other hand I really love improvising. So I will bounce back and forth between improvising in my head, or improvising on the piano, or just writing on paper, or at the computer—just to generate material. When I’m against a deadline, and worry that there’s nothing,  I don’t have the luxury to say, “oh, well, I’m going to go with this step first.” Everything my mind can pull together, all the emotional and mental capacity I have is going to go into this. Whatever it takes to get it.

Is there a point in the composition process when you know that you’ve gotten it right?

For me, no. It’s more about the law of diminishing returns. There’s a point where I’m really doing harm to this composition, or the curve of improvement is getting really shallow. Yeah, it’s getting a little bit better, but really slowly. And that indicates to me that I’m probably at 97 percent of what I can do. And usually when I hear it live, most of the questions get answered. Is this the right area of the clarinet? Is this doubling going to work? All these questions, you put it in front of—well, the BSO if you can—but any good orchestra. You have 100 people who have spent their entire lives perfecting how to play their instruments, and within 10 minutes all the questions are answered. I’m conducting now some, and I see it all the time. I did the Mozart “Haffner” Symphony. What could be more standard rep than that? And some things just don’t work. You actually have to fix things, change dynamics, change the bowings. Some things just categorically don’t work. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough. Rite of Spring doesn’t have any issues? I don’t believe it. They’re doing Prokofiev Violin Concerto. That doesn’t have any? Here and there are some issues, and you have to fix them as part of the rehearsal. There’s a point where the composer can’t give much else. And that’s where you have to stop.

As you mention, you’re sharing a program with Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2, and also with Schumann Symphony No. 1. Do you have any thoughts about the program in general?

I love both of those pieces so I’m excited to hear them. One of the ways to put together a good program is with a new piece, a 20th-century piece, and a traditional symphony. When I was a kid, Prokofiev was still modern. Prokofiev is now Mozart. The Prokofiev Violin Concerto is maybe even more popular. I have a bunch of percussion concertos that get played a lot, and they’d put Rite of Spring with it. So Rite of Spring is like a Beethoven Symphony now. That’s nice to see. Obviously I’d love to hear more new music in concerts, but usually when I go to hear an orchestra play my music there’s not another new piece.

Do you feel like your music connects to a particular compositional lineage or tradition?

On the one hand my teacher back in Israel was from Georgia, and he very much studied in the Soviet post-war style. I definitely think there’s some of that. But on the other hand, on the logic side, I feel like I’m always closer to the central European folks. Not their aesthetic from the last 70 years, but their logic. And then in the US I got a lot of the minimalist side.

Composer Avner Dorman and conductor Asher Fisch (Stu Rosner photo)
Composer Avner Dorman and conductor Asher Fisch (Stu Rosner photo)

What is the musical climate in Israel like these days? My impression has been that Israeli composers are often more influenced by the European avant-garde.

There’s a variety there. It’s a small country so you can have three people take on some influential positions and change perceptions. The pendulum swings pretty fast. Around 2000 when I was doing my masters, I won some awards, and my teacher there was very prominent at the time. Whenever my music is played in the United States people think it sounds European—but definitely not in the very extreme spectralist way. After I left, other people came in and at least the academia became very spectralist; there was a lot of experimental scratch-your-instrument stuff, which I’m very interested in myself—I don’t have a personal issue with it—but I think doing just that is a little boring.

If you look at the Israel Philharmonic, its programming is actually much closer to an American orchestra. And then if you look at the music festivals in Israel, they’re mostly somewhat French or German. But what is the style in the United States? You go to Columbia University and you get a very different thing than you get at Juilliard, and they’re not that far apart. We’re in something of a new Baroque where people do whatever they want. For example, when people use tonality today, they don’t use it the way Wagner used it. You might think, “here’s the idea of tonality, let’s throw it into this pattern or that pattern.” That’s the same as saying “let’s scratch our instruments with something.” It seems there is a more uniform language than people might realize.

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