The following questions are intended for print and broadcast journalists in connection with interviews with pianist and composer Haskell Small. These topics are designed to facilitate conversation with him and will make for a fascinating interview:
1. Do you consider yourself primarily a pianist or a composer?
It depends on the moment and what’s due Tuesday. Essentially I consider myself a pianist/composer, like Chopin and Rachmaninoff. I value the composer’s insight to being a pianist and the pianist’s insight into being a composer. I can’t really separate the two.
2. As a pianist what draws you to the particular repertoire that you perform, specifically the Musica Callada?
I spend lots of time looking for repertoire, sometimes stumbling across a piece or just hearing something on the radio. The best answer, though, is music that moves me, that hits me, rings a bell in me and makes me respond. I’m very picky. What I’m supposed to like, I don’t always like and vice versa.
Regarding Musica Callada specifically, I’ve been more and more interested in what the piano is capable of doing quietly. When I discovered this piece it just fit like a glove. Both in the sense of the premise of the piece (trying to get the instrument to sing at its quietest possible sound level) and also the mystical quality of this work really struck a chord with me. With the folk-like Catalan flavoring, this is extraordinarily beautiful music. Another aspect of Mompou’s writing, especially in this particular piece, is that there’s almost a naivety about it, a childlike feeling to a lot of the writing. The way he does that in combination with something that is so prayer-like and meditative is fascinating to me. There’s a saying that to play Mozart well you have to be either 6 or 60. The childlike innocence approach to music is what I strive for.
3. Tell me about your compositional process. Do you like to start from an outside inspiration such as something you’ve read, or do you like to start with a purely musical idea?
A number of my pieces contain extracurricular inspirations, whether it is a storyline, a narrative of some kind, a poem, a painting, or some other work of art. I love having an idea that will act as a guide in the compositional process. It will often inspire things musically that I wouldn’t think of otherwise. I like the idea of an interplay between something that is purely musical (and actually many of my pieces are purely based on musical ideas) and an outside process.
I can probably answer that question even better by describing one of my compositions, A Game of Go. I wrote that piece by sitting in four different chairs. I would find myself sitting at the piano, improvising a little to get some idea cooking. Then I would sit at the Go board (specifically, I set a classic game of Go played in the 1870s by monks in the hills somewhere in Japan) to see where the moves of the game could suggest a musical idea. Then I would go back to the piano to see how that could fit in the composition. I would also sit in an arm chair imagining, cerebrating, then go back to the piano, adding to my rough draft and improvising, seeing where it wanted to go next. I would repeat this process, back and forth, eventually sitting at a computer and writing it all out. I use the computer for notation but not for the compositional process.
And what is the inspiration behind The Rothko Room: Journey’s in Silence?
First, I’ll give a bit of background on my exposure to Rothko. I had never really understood him or his paintings up until about 7 or 8 years ago. I always thought it was just blobs of color, and it didn’t mean anything to me. But on a family Christmas trip to London, we wandered into the Tate Museum. There were a bunch of Rothkos there, and I found myself looking at one of his paintings for no good reason. Suddenly, it just started to come alive for me. I got the idea that some vibrating effect was creating extra images in my mind, if not actual images in the painting itself. I could see animations and effects that I couldn’t imagine before. I got the idea of visually how he creates that effect.
I became fascinated with Rothko and it happened to be a perfect fit with my work on Mompou’s Musica Callada. The “Journeys in Silence” project grew from this, because I felt Rothko went on a long journey in silence himself. His life journey was a journey in silence ending with his suicide. The whole narrative of that as well as the mysticalness of the quest he was on attracted me. The short answer to the question, “Is there something structurally in the paintings themselves that I took from?” is, not so much. I did sit and stare at the four paintings in the Phillips Rothko Room a lot, and I got some ideas from that process. But mostly the structural idea in the piece was a very loose presentation of the story of Rothko’s life. His early paintings had a lot of mythical figures in them and a kind of angelic section in the music became a parallel aspect of his life. Finally, bells of doom towards the end signify his fate. I don’t know if he realized it, but I’m imagining he was aware of his eventual suicide.
4. When you have outside inspiration, what draws you to the subject matter you choose?
There’s no codified approach to the repertoire I’m drawn to as a pianist. I try to keep my mind open in a listening, meditative process. When I hear something by other composers, it might just hit a nerve or a funny bone in me for no good reason. I’m not searching for subjects to write about directly. I’m drawn to the mystical side of music more and more. I’m also drawn to subject matter that relates to Rothko. Mompou leads me in that direction, as well. In general, it’s about what grabs me, what moves me, and what feels like something that I would want to spend a lot of time creating a piece about.
5. Why did you choose the poems you chose to set for Lullaby of War?
This was a "quick-order" commissioned piece by the pianist Soheil Nasseri. He had been partly responsible for me writing Renoir’s Feast(which however wasn’t directly for him to play) and then he asked me to actually write a piece for him, and commissioned me to do it. I had always felt in my hippie days an idealistic feeling against war, and I’ve always been passionate about wanting to make a statement about this artistically. I had been thinking of an idea that was like a prayer, and that led me to the idea of kind of a prayer for peace or a prayer a soldier would have on the battlefield. I put all this together and decided that if I had some specific poetry this would help to inspire more specific ideas of music. I recalled the poem “War is Kind” by Stephen Crane and this was just perfect. It is the most sardonic statement about war ever made. The notion of “how can war be kind” is an impossible thought to comprehend. It was the perfect inspiration for what I wanted to create.
I started thinking about specific sectioning of ideas and of how I wanted to make the lullaby work as a musical structure that led me to some other poems. The title “Lullaby of War” is picking up on the sardonic notion of war being kind in Crane’s poem. How can war be a lullaby? It fits in with the idea that the public is lulled into partaking in wars by thinking that it’s so important to national well being and glory of the country and how we see ourselves as a nation.
6. Are there any works that you haven’t yet written that would be a sort of dream project for you?
I want to get back to writing more orchestral works, although, I think my strength is writing for piano. I do imagine I’ll write a major orchestral work at some point in the future.
7. Tell me about your current projects. What compositions are you working on now?
I have been following the thread of my “Silence” ideas and exploring lots of different ideas. One possibility that has appealed to me is writing something that is based on the Book of Hours, the canonic hours in the monastery in the catholic tradition. I’m not a Christian – I’m Jewish - but this structure and the notion of the effect of all these different hours, actually “seasons” of the day, appeals to me in the sense of relating it to the structure of a score.
I also have some musical ideas I’ve been noodling with on the piano. For lack of a better term I’m calling it a “spirit river” - a theme that has a spiritual feeling to it that flows and leads onward. It could be the basis for the organization of a piece of music. Another project relating to this is a new chamber work involving piano and clarinet specifically because of the infinite color possibilities with the combination of these instruments. I’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Merton, a monk who was also an artist and a writer of a number of beautiful poems. His poems appeal to me because of their humble searching way. This may be a possible starting point for a new composition. I’m also interested in the idea of working with a mime artist in a sort of combination of readings and several instruments.
8. Do you like the CD recording process?
It’s grueling hard work. I certainly torment myself doing it with great pleasure. I’ve been involved pretty much every year in recording sessions. I focus on the process of trying to get the music as perfect as I can without taking the life out of it. The live process during the recording session is always interesting to me. I do the technical editing parts myself, and I find that what can be done is so amazing these days. Some might consider the editing process anti-musical, but I really think it is pro-musical in that I’m striving during the process to string together the most effective musical lines I can create. I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to produce, and I have started to enjoy it so much, I at times become obsessive. Would people rather listen to a perfect CD or a live concert? In my recordings I think I have a little of both.
9. How are you responding to the changing face of classical music in the 21st century?
I strive to adjust to the different ways music is sold and presented to the public. More and more of my music is available online, and downloadable as mp3s. In terms of the actual music, the direction of classical music in the 21st century is fascinating to me. My personal style and interest is to always keep some kind of mixture of tradition and innovation in the sense of how I go about combining and organizing musical ideas. Some purely 12 tone music doesn’t attract me because it almost sounds like an exercise. There’s no tangible feeling that I can enjoy in the harmonic elements. I’m also very interested in counterpoint and Bach. To keep that tradition alive in the 21st century is important to me, too. It’s a mission of mine.
10. What does the future hold for Haskell Small?
Thinking long term, what I envision is continuing to develop and discover new interests and new ideas that have become important to me to pursue. Classical music is always going to be a hard sell, and I’m always going to be in an uphill battle to market what it is that I want to do. I look forward to meeting that challenge.
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