Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Q&A with Composer Mark Gresham

1) Name five influences.

The music which influences me most tends to involve the tensile dynamic between Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics. But limiting myself to five names, and without explaining why these, I will say: Beethoven, Charles Ives, Paul Hindemith, John Cage (more his ideas than the music itself), and Buckminster Fuller.

2) What are you currently working on? What can we expect to hear from you?

In terms of new compositions in progress: “The Marshes of Glynn” for baritone William Stone, based upon a poem by 19th-century Georgia poet Sidney Lanier. Also, a body of string quartet music, and a couple of other promised chamber pieces.

3) What's good about the Atlanta music scene? Or, why do you live and/or work here?

I'm an Atlanta native. That's not to say I haven't considered living elsewhere. But most of the other places I've considered don't interest me enough. Atlanta is a communication, transportation, media and financial hub. All the necessary tools are here, the costs of living and working are less than half that of New York City, and we can easily reach out to anywhere in the world from here. Think CNN, and apply that thinking to being a composer.

4) What is the biggest challenge you face as an Atlanta composer and how do you address it?

The biggest challenge for me is the simple economic challenge of being a freelance composer who has neither an academic position nor who composes for film or video. That has nothing to do with Atlanta per se, but is the single biggest challenge, bluntly stated. That includes not having a non-musical day job where I draw a known paycheck every week. I deal with a new deck of cards every day.

As far as the challenges to any composer living in Atlanta, the city does pose a few, and those are challenges which it largely self-imposes.

First of all there is a long-standing “it's better if it's from somewhere else” attitude in the cultural community. It's not unique to Atlanta, but it seems to be particularly strong here, for whatever reasons.

Secondly, there is a certain amount of “cultural amnesia” when it comes to the new music scene in Atlanta before Robert Spano arrived. Either people think it didn't exist at all, or someone's gone about re-inventing the history in ways that leave people who were active in it back then scratching their heads and wondering, “Where in the hell did that come from? That's so wrong.”

Thirdly, there is the city's curious reluctance to declare an identity that is truly its own, rather than being a “blank.” Representative of that is the 1996 Olympics mascot, “Whatizit.” “It can be anything you want,” they touted, but in reality it's not anything at all. Perhaps this avoidance of identity is because Atlanta is afraid of offending this group or that group or whatever. But I don't recall Atlanta always being without a sense of self-identity; rather it seems to have only lost its self-identity within my lifetime. Or perhaps its self-identity has been slowly dismantled rather than actually lost.

All three of these challenges are forms of self-denial. My cousin Randy, who is a poet in Chicago, used to speak ironically about “the Southern saga of misery and self-denial.” He was born in Atlanta, too, and has joked about people like himself who grew up in the South and couldn't wait to get away from it, then after they did found themselves constantly defending it. While I didn't move away like he did, I understand his point. To some degree it is thematic of Southern literature. But I don't apologize for being an Atlantan, Georgian, or Southerner—or an American. This is where my roots are, and frankly, the older I get, I'm finding that more relevant within the scope of an increasingly global society, not less relevant.

Oh, yes, there are observable, long-standing frictions between “Atlanta” and “Georgia,” of course. But I believe there is greater commonality than there are ultimate differences, greater than they are respectively willing to admit. The big differences lie between a self-identity-denying Atlanta and the instinctive, intuitive parts of its own Jungian shadow, things which are intrinsically connected to being geographically, and historically, part of Georgia and part of the American South. They can be denied or repressed, but cannot be erased.

5) Who in the local scene would you like to collaborate with and why?

Well that's a tough question if you are meaning for me to name only one person among all the composers, performers, choreographers, writers, and visual artists who interest me!

But let me suggest this: I've known Michael Palmer since I was a teenager, when he was an associate conductor for the Atlanta Symphony, back in the early '70s. Since he returned to Atlanta in 2004, I've been nominally involved, in non-musical ways, in a few of his projects, such as the Bellingham Festival of Music.

Nevertheless, in all that time we've never collaborated on a major project as composer and conductor (though he has conducted one of my short orchestral works). I think it's time we did.

6) What instrument(s) haven't you written for that you would like to write for?

Well, I haven't written anything specifically for almglocken! (Go figure.) That would be kind of fun.

Also, I have never written an opera, but that is more much more problematic. Not to say that it hasn't been suggested to me by interested parties, but I haven't yet found a theatrical context or fresh story which attracts my attention enough.

What interests much more than opera is orchestral song, solo voice with orchestra, in a concert rather than theatrical setting, and solo voice with instrumental chamber ensemble. Even so, my musical interests overall lie in mostly the purely instrumental realm these days.

7) How does technology play a role in your work?

The same way it plays a role in most anyone's everyday life, like, say, when you enter a room and turn on a light. I'm not “wowed” by superficial aspects of technology, for the most part, perhaps because I don't view technology as an end in itself. That doesn't mean a lack of appreciation for technology, by any means. I'm hardly a Luddite. It's just that I'm not inclined to treat technology as a religion.

So my use of emerging digital technology, since the late 1980s at least, has primarily been for global communication, not so much as a prominently visible aspect of musical works. And I do, of course, use computer software for music engraving.

8) When and where is your next performance?

I have a piece in the upcoming SONICpalooza concert on June 25, in the 5 p.m. time-slot: “Genshi,” for E-flat clarinet and violin, which Ted Gurch and Helen Kim are playing.

9) Where can we find you online?


Thanks, Mark.

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