MK: As a composer, do you feel more American or European?
CT: These questions of identity – the main obsession of our time – are so tough to answer. I grew up in the US, spent the formative years of my professional life in Europe, and now bounce back and forth between the two scenes, lucky enough to have projects in both. The lines of influence are always blurred: My hometown of New Orleans is one of the most »European« of American cities, whereas Paris, where I lived for seven years, is the European capital that draws the highest number of Americans.
What counts for me is that I was free to explore, to follow my interests to new places as they arose, and to broaden my palette by incorporating my firsthand discoveries. I was enchanted with spectral music, so I stayed in Paris a while, went to IRCAM; I got interested in fast microtones and went to Istanbul.
So I see my musical identity as an organic outgrowth of my own trajectory, a blend of my time on both continents. There are definite American elements mixed side-by-side with techniques I learned abroad. Waterlines is maybe the best example, born out of a mediation on similarities between spectralism and the blues. The important thing for me is to let it happen naturally – not to try to sound »American« or »French,« but to draw freely upon whatever feels appropriate for a given moment.
MK: Lately, you have been working on a new project with Ensemble Modern as well as a repeat performance with JACK Quartet, an American string quartet for contemporary classical music. Can you tell more about these projects?
CT: Well the JACK Quartet gave the German premiere last Tuesday of Visions and Revisions, a piece they first performed at Wigmore Hall in January 2014. Knowing I’d be nearby, they were kind enough to include it on the program in Frankfurt, since I’d be able to attend the concert. But that turned out to be a lost cause, since an air traffic control strike interfered, and I managed to miss the performance.
My latest piece, Difficult Places, is a big one for Ensemble Modern. Its title comes from a letter written by Paul Bowles, an author and composer who was born in New York but lived the second half of his life in Tangiers:
»I’ve never yet felt a part of any place I’ve been, and I never expect to. But naturally, the fewer people there are in a place, and the less there is happening, the less conscious I am of missing what is going on under my nose. Which is why I like the most difficult places.«
– Paul Bowles
Leonel Dietsche, the filmmaker with whom I’m collaborating for this piece, and I chose as our departure point our common admiration for Bowles—his enigmatic outsider persona, his full immersion into the exotic . We met in New York City in April, then traveled together to Morocco in June, collecting sounds and images for the piece. The result is a three-layered composition: a live ensemble of eighteen players on stage, a collage of sound design projected in four speakers around the audience, and two large screens above the stage that display Leonel’s video – which is composed of small clips, triggered in real time. It should be a fairly unique audio-visual experience, I’m hoping…
MK: In terms of working with other artists, how do musicians react to your sometimes unusual choices of instruments, like couscous or the stroh violin combined with electronic sounds?
CT: The odd instrumentarium is a crucial component of my work. Those sonorities inspire me, and even if they make it sometimes harder for my pieces to be performed, it’s a risk I’m willing to take to keep those sounds in my work. I’ve gotten some funny looks in the past, but usually I’m fortunate enough to be able to work with musicians who like to experiment themselves, and so are willing to indulge my idiosyncrasies. Especially Ensemble Modern: it’s been a treat to work closely with those players over a long period. We first met in January, then had a recording session in August, where I experimented one-on-one with certain musicians. That’s where I asked the percussionist to pour rice and couscous into the rin (Japanese singing bowls), had the bass player insert a strip of paper between his strings to create a buzzing effect. Then with the entire group we recorded some warped versions of »period pieces,« a foxtrot and an Ellington-style big band number; you can hear excerpts of both in the final piece.
MK: What do you hope to communicate with your pieces?
CT: I guess I really do still believe in encoding and transmitting experience through my music. There’s always some emotional curve that I’m tracing – maybe a form that outlines the arc of a particular event, or a carnival atmosphere that invokes a sensory overflow. I like it when my works are »about something« beyond their inner techniques, something that can be described to non-specialists. Difficult Places is about the exotic versus the familiar. Spinning in Infinity is about cycles of color, gradually slowing to reveal more detail. Alcohol and Algebra is about the history of the guitar, from Andalusia to the Mississippi Delta. Writing Against Time (inspired by Micahel Clune’s book of the same name) is about »stopping time« – the sensation of suspension in an enveloping present, prolonging the wonder and enchantment of a new aesthetic discovery.