In his artist’s statement for Tile Mosaic (After Chagall), composer Sam Pluta observes: “In a century of unspeakable horrors, Chagall was able to make a new art out of light blue and pink pastels, pastorale scenes with lute-playing goats, wafting god-like clouds, floating nymphets and moon-drenched lovers. Though thoroughly devoid of goats and gods, this piece is an attempt to make a similar music. It uses small sounds, joyful hues and playful counterpoint arranged in a sea of pastels; swirling and rotating; converging and dissipating.”

Written for two pianos, percussion and “resonant pails,” Tile Mosaic will be performed in the season-opening concert Oct. 10 of MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new music series. Ahead of the performance, Sam Adams, the CSO’s Mead co-composer-in-residence, discussed the work with its composer:

A detail from Orphée by Marc Chagall. | Photo: National Gallery of Art

A detail from Orphée: The work is now on view at the National Gallery of Art. | Photo: National Gallery of Art

Sam Adams: Could you tell me about the history of this piece?

Sam Pluta: This is a piece for piano four-hands and two percussionists. It was commissioned by Yarn/Wire — my great friends from New York, an amazing music ensemble.

When I was just about to write the piece, I was in Washington, D.C., visiting a friend. We went to a couple museums, and we went to Dumbarton Oaks, a beautiful museum for Byzantine art. [Afterward] we walked outside, and my friend said, “Oh, that family there, in their backyard, is a Chagall tile mosaic.” We peeked in, and I thought it was amazing that somebody would have a Chagall tile mosaic in their backyard.* So I started looking at [Chagall’s] tile mosaics. I’ve always loved his art, I think it’s beautiful, and I went to the library and checked out books on the tile mosaics, did some research — and Chicago has an amazing tile mosaic downtown — and then that kind of inspired the piece. So it inspired how I thought about orchestration and how I thought about phrasing and the sounds I wanted to use in this composition.

SA: What is it about Chagall’s work specifically that you’re so drawn to?

SP: The first time I saw Chagall I was in Paris. I went to the Opera House, and it was a really magical experience. You go to the Opera House … it’s an incredibly ornate building from the 1870s, but then you enter the building and on the ceiling, which was painted in the 1960s, is a beautiful pastel painting. It’s shocking that you see this beautiful, warm painting inside this very different-looking building. That was probably when I was 20 years old, so that was a beautiful moment for me.

Paris' Opéra Garnier, completed in 1875, sports a ceiling designed by Marc Chagall. Executed on canvas (and requiring 400 gallons of paint), the work was installed in 1964.

Paris’ Opéra Garnier, completed in 1875, sports a ceiling designed by Marc Chagall. Executed on canvas (and requiring 400 gallons of paint), the work was installed in 1964.

Often times my music is really aggressive; not aggressive in a nasty way, it’s just I’m interested in visceral sounds and interested in gestures and shapes, and those tend to be swooping and swirling, noisy sounds. In this piece, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to try to take what I had been doing as a composer, which was resulting in very loud music, and then try to make something new out of it that was not loud — that was soft, that was gentle. I was taking Chagall as an influence there because I saw his art in the 20th century. It’s surrounded by very — I love the art of the 20th century — but a lot of it is very aggressive art and new things are often noisy and are often intense. But Chagall was somehow making a new thing out of something that was gentle and beautiful and not viscerally intense. It is intense emotionally but in a very different way. I was using that as an influence to try to make a new sound in my own music that approached that kind of feeling.

SA: Can you talk about those kinds of techniques specifically and how you created the piece?

SP: The first thing I did was to create a series of sounds. I made these individual colors — these little tiles of music — and then fit them together into the piece. In making it, I was looking for beautiful and unusual sounds that I could draw from the piano and the percussionists. They’re sounds that are simple and beautiful, but sounds you might not hear that often.

While writing the piece, I was dealing with a formal structure derived from computer programming, and right before I wrote Tile Mosaic, I was making laptop improvisation works. In making those pieces, I had to construct mechanisms by which I would traverse through various musical materials. If you’re dealing with writing for acoustic instruments, writing can be hyper-intuitive because individual notes turn into sounds, turn into phrases, etc. Dealing with these computer sounds, however, I would have these big chunks, and I wanted to move between them, so the way to do that was to construct arrays of sounds. So what happens in those laptop pieces is there’s a sound that rotates over to another sound … and that sound rotates to another sound, and I create a phrasing structure that moves between big blocks.

SA: How do you know when to choose a certain sound? How do you know when to move from one to the next? Is it a purely intuitive process?

SP: Absolutely. I found with my own composition, I need to set up a structure, and once I set up that structure, I improvise within it. The phrasing and how long things occur is all intuitive. I am trying to create these moments where a really special event can happen, where a new sound can emerge that fills in a negative space that has been left by other sounds that have happened.

SA: The moment in the piece that really stands out to me is the quiet electronic noise at the end. We hear it very subtly several times, and then all of a sudden, it ends the piece. It’s like a cadence in a certain sense. Can you talk a little bit about not only that particular sound but also why you chose to end the piece with it?

SP: I think it’s a good observation that that’s a special moment because the whole piece has these sounds, and they move between one another like blocks, like tiles. This sound, then [cutting sound] there’s an end, and this sound [cutting sound], and there’s an end. The way the end of the piece works is there’s a slow phrase; the brown noise builds up and then fades out, so it’s the only transition in the piece that is not a block. Basically in the piece, we set up a negative space of a smooth transition and then that smooth transition is so magical because that hasn’t happened before.

SA: Thanks for letting us play Tile Mosaic and present it as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series.

SP: I can’t wait to hear it!

*The Chagall mosaic Orphée was donated to the National Gallery of Art, after the death of its owner in 2009, and is now on view in the museum’s Sculpture Garden.