Splinter by Chicago-based composer Marc Mellits leads off the season-opening concert Oct. 10 of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series. Written for reed quintet, the 17-minute work is modeled after a Baroque suite, with each of its eight movements inspired by a different tree species — linden, sugar maple or red pine. Hence, the title Splinter.
The concert, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, also will be the concluding event in the Ear Taxi Festival, a six-day celebration of Chicago’s new music scene. Ahead of the Oct. 10 performance, Samuel Adams, the CSO’s Mead co-composer-in-residence, sat down with Mellits to discuss Splinter, the work’s genesis and his compositional influences.
Samuel Adams: Thanks for letting us do Splinter on the MusicNOW series. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to hearing the CSO musicians play it.
Marc Mellits: As am I.
SA: Could you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about what you’ve been working on and just a brief micro-history of the last couple of years?
MM: I’m a composer. I freelance, I write for pretty much everyone and everything I can. I just got back from a wonderful festival in France where I had a string quintet premiered — string quartet plus cello — which was fantastic. I’ve been playing more and more. I played at the same festival; I played marimba. I’m a pianist, but that was a lot of fun.
SA: Could you tell us a little bit about this piece, Splinter? How it came to be, and who commissioned it, how you approached writing it, how many movements?
MM: It was commissioned by a group called Splinter Reeds, which is a reed quintet. It’s a relatively new ensemble. It’s a wonderful ensemble and I think, because of the formation of the instruments, it’s a really good ensemble for my music and what I do. It’s all reeds, obviously, so it’s saxophone, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet. I think the reeds give it a real punchy sound. It’s really good for what I do. I think the main contact was the bass clarinetist, Jeff Anderle — I had written for him before many years before. He’s in a duo called Sqwonk, and I had written a piece for him called Black for two bass clarinets — and I think through that they had found me and ended up commissioning this work.
Whenever I write music, I think about the instruments themselves; the music for me comes from the instruments themselves. I like — you’re going to laugh — but I like imagining myself getting super small: this little tiny Marc, and I climb into the bassoon and just try and imagine what the resonance of the instrument is like. I do that with all the instruments and just try to come up with ideas that these instruments resonate with and produce. Once I have ideas to work with I’m off and running because, to me, it’s more about what you do with those ideas and how I can work with them. And then that’s it; I just come up with a bunch of stuff, throw it at the wall. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t, and the stuff that sticks ends up being the piece.
SA: Fantastic. I know you’re a great composer, but you’re also a performer as well.
MM: Some would debate both of those. [Laughs]
SA: [Laughs] OK, we’ll call you a composer-performer, so we can walk the line. But could you talk a little bit about how your experiences performing music have influenced the way you actually write?
MM: Performing my own music was not my idea. I mean, I love it now — and I do it a lot — but I had a long conversation with the great composer Steve Reich. We were in a car once for nine hours. We drove four and a half hours from New York to Ithaca and then back, Ithaca to New York. This entire time he was telling me that, when I graduated, what I needed to do was move to New York and start my own ensemble and perform in it and get this experience of performing in my own ensemble. And to let audiences and people see composers performing again; he thinks that is really important.
So I did what he told me to do and I started my own ensemble and I had been playing in it ever since. It’s a remarkable experience. As composers we’re behind the desk writing whatever we think can be possibly played and often it can be quite difficult. But when you’re on the other side of the manuscript page, and you’re actually playing these things, it gives you a different perspective on writing and I’ve always been interested in practicality and writing idiomatic music. I don’t think I was successful at it, but I’m always trying. When you’re actually playing your own stuff, I think it really helps that aspect, so it certainly influenced how I write music — to give that sort of practical bent.
SA: Could we talk a little about your influences? I mean I know that, reading about you and getting to really know your work, that you have like many of living composers right now influences from within and without the classical world. Can you just talk about maybe some of what those are, and particularly how — maybe — they’ve influenced this piece specifically?
MM: Right, right. I think generally, I think most composers — you yourself might say the same thing — I’m influenced by pretty much everything I hear. When you’re a composer, you’re creating art, you’re dealing with the art of sound; you’re ears are always on. I feel like I’m influenced by everything I hear musically and non-musically. Certainly some composers have had a bigger influence than others: Vivaldi, Bach and Corelli are probably my strongest, believe it or not. That’s kind of where I live. Then other composers have given me inspiration but also maybe confirmation: composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, all whom gave me really tremendous confirmation. I had been writing repetitive music for a long time, and the first time I heard Steve Reich, the first time I heard Philip Glass, it sounded so familiar to the things I’d been writing. It gave me this really great confirmation that it’s OK to do that — like, you can do that.
But then there was a whole other side of music that as a child I was exposed to. I listened to a lot of classical music as a kid. My father was always playing opera in the house, which was great. Then there was my brother who lived in the basement, and he would call me down to his room. It was like “The Brady Bunch.” He had this room in the attic. He was the cool, ’70s older brother who lived in the basement, and he would call me down to his room. Upstairs I’d be listening to Beethoven and Bruckner, and downstairs I would listen to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. But when you’re 11 years old and 9 years old, and you’re exposed to these things at the same time — it never occurred to me that they were different artistically. I was too young to understand that. I knew they were different stylistically, but to me, I put them at the same level. So I’m listening to Pink Floyd and I’m listening to Bach next to each other.
To me, it was sort of the same thing — they required the same virtuosity. Through my brother, I was exposed to this whole other canon of work — contemporary work — that later in life I could see, if I look back, was really influential. It’s nothing I ever tried to do; I never sit down with the page and try to put some sort of musical influence or — even stylistically — I’m never trying to write in any certain style. I think it’s just a part of you and the minute you try to write a certain style, you’re going to be phony and everyone is going to see that. So you just have to go with what you are, and this is what I am, and this is where I came from.
SA: Definitely. You have been working and living in Chicago for quite a long time. Can you talk about what you love about Chicago and why you like to work here and what excites you about being in this city?
MM: The community here is incredibly warm. I mean from day one — the first day I got here — folks like eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion and many other composers as well as performers took me around to show me what’s going on and the whole scene. Many of them had been playing the music already, so it was nice to actually meet them for the first time. It’s a very warm scene; it’s a very inviting scene. It’s a great place to be living as a composer. To have this festival [Ear Taxi] here, in your hometown … this is something that I would fly to just to experience. But to be able to live there and be able to walk outside my door and hear all this music in my own town is really special. It’s just an incredible, incredible thing, and I’m really looking forward to it. I think, also, in a city like Chicago where it’s so supportive, something like that can really take off and be big.
SA: Terrific. Last question: What’s next?
MM: I’m finishing a couple CDs, in fact, of all my music. New Music Detroit is making — this wonderful group in Detroit — is making an all-Mellits CD. There’s a group in France as well that’s making an all-Mellits CD. So that’s been going back and forth and finishing those. As far as writing: I just finished a string quintet, and now I’m starting a saxophone quartet. I love writing for saxophone. I’ve written for saxophone before. Like the reed quintet, it’s a punchy ensemble. It’s very me. And then I have a bass clarinet and string quartet to write, a solo bassoon piece and an opera.