New England Conservatory composer Kati Agócs, having just returned from Winnipeg, where the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra performed the new Horn Concerto she recently wrote for BSO Principal Horn James Sommerville, shares news that a streamed version of the concert with Somerville playing and conducting is available (free) HERE. The concerto’s instrumentation of solo horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, and strings mirrors that of Mozart’s Third Horn Concerto K 447. Agócs wrote:
My piece extends the range lower with the addition of Bass Clarinet and Contrabassoon doublings, adding rich, dark woodwind colors to the sonic palette. Eighteen minutes in duration, cast in three movements, my concerto highlights the lyrical properties of the horn and also provides opportunities for the wind and string players in the orchestra to shine.
The co-commission of Symphony Nova Scotia, Sioux City Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and Prince Edward Island Symphony had premiered in Sioux City on November 14, 2021; the music critic Bruce Miller then wrote:
With a stage bursting with musicians, Saturday’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 was one of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra’s best in five years. The composer’s … work [gave] every instrument in the 60-plus orchestra a chance to shine. Conductor Ryan Haskins had ample opportunity to showcase woodwinds, brass and strings throughout…. The world premiere of Kati Agócs’s Horn Concerto didn’t seem all that removed from other classical works…. It was written for guest artist [Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal Horn] James Sommerville…. Written for the horn, strings, two clarinets and two bassoons … the 18-minute piece had plenty of variety and what [Agócs] called ‘dreamlike’ textures…. The clarity with which [Sommerville] played (and the complement he got from Holly Haddad on the clarinet) helped propel him through a second movement that had echoes of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story.’ The third gave his fingers keyboard-level workout…. The work was satisfying for all involved…
In a Classic 107 interview with Chris Wolf Somerville opined:
People worry about brand new music because they wonder if there’s something that they can actually find themselves humming as they leave the door. I’ve played a lot of new pieces and this one, after I started practicing it for a while, I’d find myself doing laundry and humming the tunes to myself… It’s very delicate, very independent writing, so that all of the string players in the group might be playing slightly different parts and they’ll be playing very transparent music way up high. It has a really cool airy sound to it, but also has beautiful tunes. More of the interview HERE.
Agócs returned the compliment in her Simeon Rusnak interview for Classic 107:
James has an effortless high register and a very pure sound; these are rare features in horn playing; and he has such beautiful natural phrasing too. I took advantage all of these qualities in the piece; each of the movements showcases different facets of the horn. And perhaps because of my vocal background, my music tends to feature a lot of melody. I think of the melodic lines as vocal impulses, and that’s how I go about working on a piece like this. More of that interview HERE.
BMInt had some questions for the composer.
FLE: In your recent interview you mentioned that you embed fanfare-like gestures from the hunting-horn tradition into “non-functional harmony.” What’s that exactly?
KA: Well, by “non-functional harmony” I mean chains of dominant-seventh chords, with each chord resolving to another dominant-seventh chord, which in turn resolves to another… These chromatic “chains” of chords prepare important arrival points in the first movement of my piece; like a gloss on the Mozart harmonic landscape, they blur the harmonic trajectory and tell the listener that things aren’t quite what they seem. The last time that this occurs, the “normal” progression of five chords leads to yet another dominant seventh chord, which triggers the horn to resolve the movement.
You talk about layers and colors and tunes, but is there some structural form that can ground us? Do the melodies recur and evolve?
Each of the three movements has a distinct form.There are no cyclic connections across the movements (as there are in the piano concerto that I am currently writing!) The first movement of the Horn Concerto is ternary, with a horn cadenza that leads to the recapitulation. One key thing about this movement (besides the playful dominant seventh chords already discussed) is that it is in a five-four meter. This yields syncopations and cross-rhythms that add to its insouciant character.
The second movement is a ground-bass form, over which variations unfold, with increased embellishment as the lines approach the cadences, and with gauzy, morphing textures layered over top. The ground-bass structure is contrasted by more florid, meditative areas, whose harmonies are related by thirds, so they take us to more distant areas. The variations build to a horn cadenza that is more supplicating and far-reaching. There is more soloistic writing for members of the orchestra in this movement; a violin solo leads to the recapitulation of the opening ground-bass pattern, over which the horn duets with the first clarinet on a variation of the main melody.
The third movement is more spirited, angular, and driven. Since I introduce the bass clarinet and contrabassoon here, there is an emphasis on darker colours. This movement is built on a theme/answer complement, picked up contrapuntally by the orchestra, that evolves into a more bell-like area where I introduce the stopped horn. When this effect is combined with glissando (slides over many partials), and imitated by the violins, who are all independent and blurred, the discourse becomes more about the space in between things. The third movement’s harmony also opens up into more complex sonorities, with chords that are almost twelve-note, that could possibly be understood spectrally, if one wanted to go there.
Do you ever write manifestos to explain or justify your work?
I approach each work according to its own parameters, trying to stay open to something coming in that I did not expect. In terms of the role of the written word, I have always written since I was a little kid, so I often write about the philosophy or emotions behind the work concurrently with the music. Usually it happens in fragments; I’ll revisit the sequence of fragments later to see how they coalesce. But I would never foreground the written aspect. It takes me more than a year to write a piece like this, so there is significant evolution in my own thinking over the course of the composition process. I allow the piece to change me, to take me to a place that I did not imagine. That might be difficult to codify in a manifesto – maybe I’ll try.
As a melodist, do you carry a notebook about with you to write down ideas?
I usually come up with melodic ideas while playing or singing; it’s a tactile and spontaneous process. For me, melodies are not separate from musical ideas in general. Sometimes I record voice memos at the piano that are somewhat improvisatory, that suggest a sound world – things that I never would’ve come up with while “trying to compose” – and I’ll go back and transcribe them. If I’m away from the piano I might write down a tune or make a voice memo.
According to Mark DeVoto, a frequent writer on these pages, scholarship on the subject of melody is something of a taboo. He aimed to redress that with: Melody and Musical Texture, textbook in 15 chapters, unpublished, seeking a publisher. You can read Chapter 1 HERE. What do you think of that first chapter? Can you cite any other books on the subject?
It is always welcome to have a writer address this topic, which can be ineffable and difficult to codify. Chapter one is probing, but not too technical. The definitions are clear; I appreciate when DeVoto goes into more depth in his analysis of the intervals and contour of specific melodies, including which scale degree they start on and lead to. The musical examples are drawn from a range of genres—from children’s songs to the First Viennese School, from drinking songs to Stravinsky. On a related note, Stravinsky believed that the capacity for melody is a gift, not within our power to develop by study—but we can shape its evolution by “perspicacious self-criticism”; this book could be helpful to composers toward that end.
D’Indy’s Cours de composition musicale (1912) comes to mind, particularly since Olivier Messiaen drew from its discussion of melodic accentuation in his teaching, practice, and study of Mozart’s music. The concepts of preparation, accent, and descent—an expansion of the tension-relaxation principle—apply across musical styles. Also, the idea of linking accentuation in music to spoken language is salient– for example, a composer of Hungarian background might be more likely to write the dotted rhythms that occur in that language. Finally, Messiaen’s take on d’Indy’s definitions of masculine and feminine rhythms (and groups of rhythms) has implications for live performance, since it involves examining the rhythmic structure of melodies in order to produce the most sensitive declamation.
Do you believe in muses and inspiration? Do Euterpe and Terpsichore visit you on a predictable schedule?
I’m more pragmatic; I believe that if you show up consistently, inspiration will come. The most important thing is hearing the music in real time, whether it’s you or the performers playing it. I’m interested in making things that lie optimally for the instruments, in finding that sweet spot where it is good to play and makes the instrument sound good. To find that, one must remain an open vessel.
I’ve also learned to take my time. During the lockdown when I was writing my cantata Voices of the Immaculate, I did full read-throughs, 30 minutes in real time, for soprano voice (a higher tessitura than the version that was premiered!) together with a reduced version for piano. It helped me to understand the form, timing, and pacing, as well as the flow of the vocal writing.
The first thing that clarifies for me is the form of a work; I improvise and hone a form every day in my head (or at the piano) until I know the proportions and the exact timing down to second of where everything will happen, then I clarify the melodic and harmonic details. I’m almost like a sculptor carving a thing out of rough rock.
The work schedule is paramount. I am in the studio well before seven every day, sometimes much earlier. Of course, that means that I pass out at, like, 9 PM, but that’s another story.
Does desktop music publishing software democratize the work of composing or does its cut and paste ease degrade it?
Desktop music publishing software—you’re talking about Sibelius, Finale, Dorico—they are just tools. Composers still need to hone their craft in the old-fashioned way to become complete artists. I encourage aspiring composers to write with pencil and paper, because the software messes with how the inner ear connects to one’s physicality, and it does not allow their inner ear to develop properly. I write everything with a pencil first, on traditional music paper. Beyond that, the software is just another way of getting the music out there.
Gunther Schuller told me more than once that in any era there have been no more than six great composers…he included himself. Do such pronouncements interest you? What advice do you have for young composers?
Young composers need a few strong pieces with decent recordings. That is their currency. I know what Gunther was talking about, in terms of earlier generations and history “culling” a certain number after the fact. We are living in different times now. There are many more composers. The determination of greatness is something that history can collectively make at another time. I think of myself as a conduit. I want to allow something larger to flow through me. The primary thing is to write the best piece that one possibly can at a given moment in time.
In Jamie’s interview there was a lot of discussion about the commissioning process. In the absence of princes and great impresarios, academic and collegial connections seem essential. It can seem to young composers that cliquishness and fashion excludes them. Should the process of commissioning be more like auditions behind curtains?
There are still princes or princesses, (or at least duke and duchesses) and impresarios in our community but yes, those connections are essential. There have always been cliques in the composition world. In the 1960s and 1970s one had to write a certain way to advance in the field. That changed through the 1980s and 90s, and now we are in a time of intense pluralism, but there are still different factions forming each year. It might even be trendy to go back to things that were trendy in the 1970s! The curtain is an interesting idea — I wonder how you would implement that, because these decisions are rarely based on the music alone. From a composer’s standpoint, I believe that the most important thing is expressive clarity and choosing one’s influences carefully. If a composer has something to say, then people can tell that. If a composer thinks too much of external things, then they will not focus enough on developing their craft.
It does seem that tastes of audiences and marketing are much more of a factor in commissioning now than decades back. Presenters now care if we come and listen and tend to eschew the most academic voices. What advice do you have to those with ready funds for composers?
There is room for all kinds of styles and approaches now. It is tough to pin down what is “academic” because many of the schools are going against the kind of rigorous thinking that is used to be considered academic. If you mean that I teach at a school, then yes, I am academic, but that’s as far as you can go. If you want to commission, go with your gut. If something resonates with you, it will resonate with other people. You could take a chance on a lesser-known voice. There were opportunities 15 years ago that seemed like a long shot, where players or commissioners took a chance on me. Now those pieces are getting lots of performances. I never could have imagined that at the time. Conversely, many composers who are well established are not getting a lot of opportunities to write currently, because they are not trendy, up-and-coming, or part of a given subset of the population, but they are well worth putting your faith in. If you want the best piece you can possibly get, commission someone like that. Cast your net widely, find music you love, and dream big.