This season Paper Cut composer Alex Shapiro attended one of The Lesbian & Gay Big Corp’s rehearsals. Afterward she sat down with Artistic Director and Conductor Kelly Watkins and indulged us on where her inspiration comes from, and how she came to composing. Paper Cut will be played in the first half of the April 11th 2015 concert New York State of Mind.
Kelly Watkins: First of all, thank you very much for coming. It makes such a huge difference to have the composers available to meet the band. Even if you don’t have monumental questions that need to be answered about the piece, there’s a connection that happens.
Alex Shapiro: I think the connection is knowing that the notes on the page on your music desk come from this human being. No matter how weird the human being might be, or what bizarre sense of humor they might have, the notes come from someone. When I visit, the notes suddenly come off the page and their context is more identifiable to the musicians. I feel this way with every band I visit, but I particularly love it with an adult band because we’re on the same plane of existence. Our points of reference and life experience are so similar, that’s why it’s particularly enjoyable with a band like this. It’s really great.
KW: I can definitely see a change in the band. Everyone’s eyes go wide in a look that says, “Oh, I get it now.” or “Oh, that makes more sense.” Even when you say some of the things I’ve already said…
AS: Well you know, it’s sort of like a parent can say something a million times, but when a stranger says it, suddenly its like “Oh! Ok!” as if the kid had never heard it before.
KW: So where do you find inspiration for composing?
AS: I live in a really beautiful place called San Juan Island, floating off the upper left hand corner of the United States. We’re right on the Canadian water border off of Vancouver Island, and it’s incredibly rural. Nature is my inspiration, even though it’s not necessarily evident in this particular piece. It’s the irregular rhythms of nature and the behavior of nature that has a huge effect on me and the way that I hear. In a lot of my other works you can sense this a little more readily, in mixed meters and in the flow of things. It permeates every part of my life. When I sit at my desk looking at other islands, gazing out 125 miles away at Mt. Rainier, or the Cascades, the Olympics, or at whales jumping up in front of me out of the sea and eagles flying by with hapless little animals in their talons, it’s an amazing sensory overload. I think that music is the best way to express some of that.
KW: We discussed briefly the connection you have with music and how personal it is to you. Do you feel like you were always drawn to music?
AS: I was. I started writing when I was nine. I asked my parents for piano lessons when I was 10. I always knew I wasn’t going to be a pianist but it’s always good to learn an instrument. When I was 15 I took my first formal composition lessons at Mannes College with Leo Edwards and that’s when I knew for sure that I was going to be a composer. Then I had my first paid commission when I was 16.
KW: That’s incredible!
AS: Well, hopefully the music has gotten better since I was 16!
KW: I’m sure it’s been changing a lot with life.
AS: It’s changing with facility too. I had never even been to a wind band concert till 2008, nor had I ever touched a euphonium…I couldn’t tell you what a euphonium was! I had no life experience; my high school didn’t have a band.
KW: So you didn’t have exposure to it.
AS: Right. I had been writing chamber music. Previously I had done a lot of film and TV but when I switched over to concert music, it was all chamber music because that was what I knew and loved. When the U.S. Army Band contacted me out of the blue in 2008 asking me to write a wind band piece for them, I was very honest and made it really clear to them that I didn’t know what I was doing and they said, ‘That’s fine. That’s why we want you’, which is the best thing in the world to ever say to an artist.
KW: So have you always been intrigued by electroacoustic music?
AS: Always. I started when I was 15.
KW: I feel like some people are kind of scared of it. There’s a certain amount that’s not in your control in there…
AS: Actually, it’s sort of the ultimate instrument for a control freak in a sense because it’s going to play back the same way every single time. As opposed to the variables of a band, where who knows what’s going to happen. But then mixing the two together, that’s a big variable. There aren’t a lot of pieces that do that, and now, I’ve composed about eight of them. I love writing them and I’m doing two more later this year. I love electroacoustic band music. It makes what is already a huge palette from the wind band, become an enormous palette. Just massive. For me, coming from chamber music to when I discovered the band world, well, the first time I heard the Army play the piece they commissioned, Homecoming, I almost fell off my chair because I had never been hit with that much sound of my own work before. I loved it! And you know, from being in the Coast Guard Band, the musicianship is so great. How about you, are you focusing more and more on conducting?
KW: I’m getting into it more and more. I’ve been in the Coast Guard Band 12 years now. I love playing, but I didn’t always know I wanted to be a musician. I played trumpet and ended up being good at it, so then I went with it. Conducting is another animal. It has opened me up so much more as a musician to hearing differently and to being more vulnerable. I really love being able stand in front of people trying to figure out how to make it all connect. It’s challenging because people have to be willing to do that. People have to be willing to be vulnerable and open up and look you in the eyes. I think what attracted me to conducting was chamber music. I love brass quintet playing because it is so personal and you have to be so connected to each other and the audience. I love trying to bring that to the larger group.
AS: One of the things that has always blown me away coming from the orchestra and chamber music side of things, is that I never realized before just how hard it is, if not harder, to be a band director than an orchestral conductor. The reason is that every band has a different number of people. You never know, band-to-band, how many clarinets you’re going to have, how many this or how many that.
KW: We have 18 flutes, something crazy like that.
A: It’s unbelievable. For instance Homecoming was written for a small band of about 48 players. I remember going to rehearsal at a university and I saw 70 people on stage and figured they were going to rehearse somebody else’s piece before they got to mine. Suddenly the downbeat came and they started playing my piece, and I’m thinking (and this is when I was a newbie in the band world), ok…how did they figure out all these parts? How did they figure out the balance? It wasn’t written for this large a group. But it worked fine. I realized the reason is because of the talent of the person on the podium to, on the spot, understand the balances and the dynamics and to then adjust them based on the specific group. It blew my mind, and my respect for band directors just went through the roof.