Italian-born composer Clara Iannotta is particularly interested in music as an existential, physical experience. She believes music should be seen as well as heard. To that end, she sometimes prefers to talk about the choreography of the sound, rather than about the orchestration itself.
Her intimate sinfonietta Intent on Resurrection — Spring or Some Such Thing will be performed May 9 in a MusicNOW program (which borrows the title of this work). The following is a transcript of a conversation between Iannotta and Sam Adams, the CSO’s Mead co-composer-in-residence.
Sam Adams: Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?
Clara Iannotta: I come from Rome, in Italy. I was a flutist and was studying to do that for my whole life. I started to study composition because my harmony teacher told me in order to become a good musician, you have to study composition. You have to understand what you are playing and the scores. After about a year and a half, I understood composing was what I wanted to do in my life. So I moved to Milan, and then moved to Paris about eight years ago and stayed there [in Paris] for six years. Then I moved to Berlin and now I live in Boston half of the time and the other half of the time in Berlin — six months and six months.
SA: So could you tell us what you’re working on right now?
CI: Yes. I am working on a string orchestra piece, which will be premiered in Munich, Germany, next October. I am really excited because it’s a very large-scale piece. It’s not very long — it’s just 20 minutes — but there are many musicians. Strings are my favorite instruments, and I’m working on putting objects into the strings and on the strings. Nothing that harms the instruments in any way, but using the objects to offer a wider sonic environment.
SA: I got to know your music through a podcast that Daniel Vezza created. I realized how small the world is and how few degrees of separation there were between us. I heard your piece Clangs, your micro cello concerto, and I was so fascinated by the sound of the piece and the kind of external tapestry. I wanted to stick my head inside of the music, which was so beautiful. It’s been a while since I heard the piece, but I think almost every instrument in that piece is somehow prepared or doing some kind of extended technique. Could you talk a little bit about how you like to write for instruments and how you like to create new sounds with them and your approach with that?
CI: I grew up in a very interesting family because my father was one of those people who believed kids can be happy without toys, so we didn’t have any toys in my house. But we wanted them. So my father, instead of buying us something, would take an old telephone, an old computer, and would break it and tell us “do whatever you want with it.” So basically I grew up building my own objects and building my own toys. For example, a toaster could be a village dwelt by cable people. This is how I grew up, so anything that is just given to me is not interesting. Having the normal sound of the violin is just something that doesn’t belong to me. So this is why I like to prepare instruments, to try to find a personal approach to sound, a personal approach on the instrument. I’m trying to give to the audience and to the musicians themselves a different perspective of what music can be. And that is why I try to prepare each instrument and really to play [with the instruments].
SA: Could you tell us about some of the things in this piece that you’ve asked the players to do?
CI: I used, for example, honey spoons in the harp or bear claw or paperclips on the strings. I prepared the clarinet. I asked the brass sections to play harmonicas that I prepare with some silk so that they have very high harmonics. They use megaphones. They use music boxes, brushes, polystyrene [Styrofoam], all kinds of objects. I use very interesting, weird objects.
SA: Most instrumentalists spend 99.9 percent of their energy focused on being able to make a good sound, to play excerpts from Don Juan and get a job. I imagine, at least in America, that you may have had some circumstances where you’re telling a violinist to do something, and you have some push back or have the players you usually work with been very open to doing new things?
CI: I think they are always a bit skeptical at the beginning, and they are totally right, because they want to understand that there is a reason you are doing that. You’re not doing that just because you want something that wounds weird. My first rehearsals are always catastrophic, and I spend two hours just explaining things. Then they start to play and I think they are convinced by the music and they understand it and enjoy playing it. Of course, there are exceptions in both ways. There are people who are still not convinced [after playing the music] and people who are convinced straight away. But I think if you show them right away that there is a reason you are doing it, that the music makes sense, that you don’t want to be the “weird artist.” If you deliver that, they understand.
SA: We were in San Francisco doing Àphones [composed by Clara Iannotta in 2011], and I think at first the players, all of whom were San Francisco Symphony players, were, like, “Aluminum foil? What is this?” But by the end of the process, after really getting to know the internal logic of your music, they absolutely loved playing the piece, and they were so committed to it. It was so much less about the gesture of doing it, it is a very striking and compelling physical gesture, but I think there was a real awareness of what was happening sonically and how everything was so brilliantly orchestrated and so well thought out.
Could you tell us a little bit about this piece, Intent on Resurrection, and a little about the impetus behind it? We have a lot of people who come into these concerts who are experts in contemporary music and have a lot of people who are just curious and have an open mind. For those who have never heard this kind of music before, what would you say they might want to listen for? What are some things they might find interesting to latch onto?
CI: Intent on Resurrection has been commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and the Festival d’Automne [à Paris] 2014, and it is my second piece for large ensemble [for 17 musicians]. The first was actually Àphones that was played in San Francisco last year.
[Intent on Resurrection] is probably the piece that has meant the most to me so far because in 2013 I moved to Berlin and I turned 30. It sounds really stupid, but when you turn 30, your relationship with death changes. It’s not necessarily when you turn 30, but at some point in your life. For me, it was when I turned 30. It was the second year I was outside of academies, I wasn’t enrolled in anything, and I was living alone in an enormous apartment. I started to have this panic attack, to fear death. You realize you can die, and you start to feel anxious. So I became very interested in trying to document myself and read everything, etc.
I read this collection of poems by an Irish writer called Dorothy Molloy, and I was absolutely struck by what she was saying. She wrote these three very small collections when she was dying in 2004, 10 days before being published Faber & Faber, which is really sad. In all her poems, she talks about her body dying in a very cynical, touching approach. It was absolutely fantastic. I noticed as I was reading her poems I had this image of being in a room completely full of dust in which you do not see anything. It’s almost like the perception of your body disappears because you cannot see it. Then, little by little, your eyes get used to this dust, and you can see the little particles of dust, each tiny cell. Then you see how much just a tiny bit of light can change the perspective of the whole because you can have sparkles, etc. So this was the image I had while I was reading these poems. The piece, for me, is that image. At the beginning, with all the megaphones, etc., what you hear is basically my dust. And then, little by little, I introduce the sparkles and rays of light that change the perspective of this dust, and you start to see all the details of this massive texture that comes at first.
SA: That’s beautiful. I could be completely wrong about this, but when I hear the piece, I hear a lot of melting. Is that a component?
CI: Well, all my music is about melting. I really try to find things that melt into each other so you have this enormous texture or something that is very complex, but at the same time, you can have one layer of the texture that comes out, then it gets in again. It’s almost like when you see waves of things that come out, there is one part that sticks out and then gets in again. Yeah, everything is about melting.
SA: There’s an incredible intimacy in your music, particularly in this piece. Not just a metaphorical intimacy, but we are quite literally hearing the most intimate sounds that you can make. It’s like you’re sucking on a Popsicle, these types of sounds. Is that something that you’re really interested in and amplifying in your music, those small gestures?
CI: Yes. It’s been a few years, like four years, that [I’ve noticed] my sounds have become weaker and weaker — really, really small. I relate it to my tinnitus. I have tinnitus, this ringing in my ear that I’ve had for five years. At the beginning, it was really annoying, but as you know the brain is an amazing machine, and you get used to pretty much everything. And since I couldn’t hear my internal sound, I became very interested in creating and hearing the internal sound of each object. Which means I am really trying to make my research internal. I want to hear it. Since I can’t hear mine, I want to hear yours.
Of course, this gets along to my idea of visual music, the fact that there is a visual component, there is a theatricality within the sound. You can see the sound. What I always ask the audience is to try and come toward the music. The music is not coming toward you, so you have to make the effort to go toward it. Since my sounds are getting weaker and weaker, the gestural component, how you produce the sound starts to have a very important figure. How you produce the sound is almost as important as the sound itself. In this piece, that’s not completely the case. I am going toward theater music and trying to give the visual component the same leading role that the sound has. But it’s true that all the sounds are almost inaudible, but since you can see the musicians moving, your perception, your way of listening changes, and everything, even if it’s [pianissimo], you can start to hear it. Your perception of the sonic world should change.
SA: That almost sounds like a political statement about musical consumption. So much music is geared toward the Internet or recordings, but would you say your music, in order to be really experienced, has to be in a live performance? Or is it something completely different if it is experienced on a recording?
CI: Well, music is alive. You should experience it live. It is still very fine when you hear it on a CD, but it is almost like lazy listening. Since you cannot see the musicians, it’s like we just give you all the sounds so you can hear all the sounds. Whereas when you see the music and you see someone moving but you cannot hear the sound, you just try to listen better until you hear it. It works both ways. It’s impossible to have everyone come to your concerts. Now there is SoundCloud, YouTube and Vimeo, and the way the world can listen to your music is [moving] toward this Internet. That’s fine, but I think it’s better when you can go to the performance, and you can listen to it live.