“It’s Kind of Like Making a Stew or a Soup:” An Interview with Jeff Myers

David Johnston

2012 Composer-in-Residence Jeff Myers


We’re excited to begin our 2012-13 Composer-in-Residence interview series. Over the several months, keep a lookout for these e-chats and get to know each composer a bit more in depth. Our first installment features Jeff Myers. Jeff talks about his recent post as composition professor at the University of Hawaii, collaborations with noted playwrights and the JACK Quartet, inspirations, New York City, and the music he plays for his newborn son.


Congrats again on winning Hilary Hahn’s Encores Contest. It’s exciting to hear that your winning piece The Angry Birds of Kauai is now being featured as part of Hahn’s 2012-13 concert season. Will you be able to catch a live performance at some point?

I hope to! So far she has played it in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Quito, Ecuador. I am waiting to find out where she will play it in the US. I should know pretty soon.

The Angry Birds of Kauai was written during your year serving as composition professor at The University of Hawaii at Manoa. Could you briefly describe your time there as a professor?

It was quite an experience. Hawaii is about as different from New York as you can get, so I had to adjust.  The University of Hawaii is a great place to learn about music from Asia.  There are courses (or ensembles) in music from China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Polynesia. I learned a lot about writing music (by writing a couple pieces) for pipa when they brought in pipa virtuoso Yang Jing.  Many of the student composers there are writing for Asian ensembles, which is an interesting challenge as a teacher. I often found myself asking the student “How is this going to sound?” or “How is this instrument played?” I learned a lot about different notation practices for the various instruments.  Actually, it was more like a one-year postdoc degree in composition for Asian instruments, rather than a conventional visiting professor gig.  My colleagues Donald Womack and Thomas Osborne were really great (and fantastic composers!) and it was a very supportive environment. The performance faculty is stellar as well. Jonathan Korth and Rachel Schutz played my song La Beauté and did a fabulous job.  I also had a chance to teach at a music and theater oriented summer school (Ohana Summer Arts) for high school age kids and younger. That was pretty fun—I was able to introduce young musicians to some new compositional concepts and teach a little theory to prepare them for college.

Hawaii is also a vacation paradise (no explanation needed!). I would recommend it to everyone—it is almost unbelievable that it is a state. It seems more like another world altogether.  The confluence of Asian culture, Island culture and Western (American, British, and Portugese) culture creates a really unique environment.

The composing environment in Hawaii is obviously very different from New York City. What did you love about Hawaii? Did you miss NYC at all?

In some ways, it is no different, because I have my own style as a composer.  I still follow the same process.  However, the different environment was a nice change. I didn’t feel the intensity or the pressures from the New York scene. So in a way, it was a little liberating.  It is always nice to get that distance from time to time to reflect.  I actually wrote less, because I was teaching and I was enjoying the island’s distractions.  New York is always where I will want to be, but it is great to take opportunities to explore other places.

What was it about New York City that made you want to settle here as a composer?

I am originally from the Bay Area (Fremont, CA). I came to New York City for the first time in 1998 for the BMI Student Composer Awards.  After that I was hooked. I made regular trips to the city for performances until I finished my course work at University of Michigan in 2006 (when I made the move).  People always asked me, “Why are you here? Did you get a job here?” I couldn’t understand—wasn’t it obvious that this is where you need to live as a composer?  Job or no job, this is where you need to be.  Well, I guess it isn’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine living in Fremont for my entire life. New York has the entire world in one vibrant and musical city.  One only needs a metrocard.

Having travelled throughout the US and internationally for your music, what do you find unique about NYC in terms of its cultural offerings and as a place to create music?

New York is great because it is somehow both a small town and the entire planet at the same time. It is a small town because people often run into each other in the street or the most random places like Whole Foods.  Many of the same New Yorkers will show up at similar concerts or events as well. But I will also run into people I met in other countries in the same way. Everyone is passing through New York at some time since it is such a major hub of activity.  There are particular New York-style cultural offerings, but for the reason I just mentioned, you can get a taste of everything that is new and exciting at some point in the year.  New York also has a lot of small venues which include classical or classical-crossover shows like Joe’s Pub, Le Poisson Rouge, or Galapagos Art Space, not to mention the gallery scene. These more intimate places are great because you can relax, have a drink and see great music.  As an audience member, I almost prefer these venues to the grandiose halls where the orchestras play.  Of course, the Vienna Philharmonic would be a tight fit at the Flea Theater! The other great thing about New York is the density of world-class music schools like Juilliard, which often have great concerts without an admission fee.  Every day there are a handful of concerts that I wish I could make it to.  It kind of makes me sad!

Working with performers in the city is great too. They are usually at the top of their game, so rehearsals are very efficient and professional.  Besides having a high level of skill, many of them are also very fun to socialize with after concerts. If I didn’t go out for food or drinks with my fellow musicians, I would probably have fewer commissions and performances!

The members of the JACK Quartet are good friends of yours. Could you describe how you became acquainted with them during your Eastman days together? Your string quartet dopamine was dedicated to JACK. How did knowing JACK influence the writing of this piece?

Eastman was a very supportive and friendly environment when I was a student. Everyone I knew was really interested in new music—they were either writing it, playing it, or writing about it.  To my bewilderment, some of these players would learn several new pieces and play in dozens of concerts in a matter of weeks.  Kevin McFarland, the cellist in JACK, played my cello piece when I first arrived. He agreed to play it before I even finished asking him if he would play it.

Jeff: “Hey would you be interested in playing my—”

Kevin: “Yes!”

Chris Otto and Ari Streisfeld (violinists) were freshmen while I was an entering Master’s student. They could play anything. It was amazing. Chris played my string quartet (Metamorphosis II). It was perfect—almost like he was in my brain.  John Richards, the violist, was always playing tons of new music, be it solo, with a quartet or in larger ensembles. When I moved to New York, I had discovered that these four had recently played some Lachenmann in Mexico.  The composer subsequently took them under his wing and the rest is history. I just remember thinking, “This is going to be great because they are all new music rock stars, but it will take a few years to build up a following.”

In 2007 I wrote them the string quartet dopamine.  It was a special piece—I wrote it in ten days in a flash of creativity. It uses a microtonal tuning which I had never tried before. Almost all of the strings are retuned and use natural harmonics, which adds precision to the resulting pitches. JACK Quartet, being especially interested in alternate tunings, was able to play it like a Haydn Quartet.  I’m pretty sure that they can hear the microtonal deviations better than I can.  During the first rehearsal, Ari suggested tuning his high E down to put it into just intonation with the low C.  They are that exacting. Subsequently, JACK has played the piece numerous times around the world.  

You’re very prolific and your music covers many different genres of music, from Filipino Kulintang-based music to full-length operas. Are there particular people, subjects, or themes that inspire you? How do you find the mental and physical space to compose?

I am usually inspired by things that I can relate to in some way.  With opera, I am much more motivated if I can identify with my protagonists (which are usually obsessive and neurotic!).  It comes back to writing what you know. With concert music, the themes are much more varied, but all related to my experiences.  Most of my music is based on some kind of personal experience with which I am infatuated at the time.

Finding the right space for composition is very difficult. With all of the distractions of Facebook, mobile phones, media, work, socializing and family, it is easy to lose focus.  The best time for me is late in the night, wherever I am.  I find it just easier to focus and get into the hypnotic state of creativity for hours.  I can write a little music here and a little there, but it is frustrating. I hate having to stop once I have a collection of ideas in my mind that I need to get on paper. It’s kind of like making a stew or a soup, it takes a chunk of time.  I might not actually get a lot done, or I might even have to rewrite and rewrite, but it is all about the flow of ideas.  And that can only happen if I know there will be very few distractions.

Recently, you wrote two highly successful operas with noted playwrights through your participation in the American Lyric Theater’s Composer-Librettist Development Program – Maren of Vardø with Royce Vavrek and Buried Alive with Quincy Long. Were these your first opera collaborations? What was it like collaborating with these noted playwrights?

These were my first collaborators. Royce is very quirky and he has a strong music theater background (when we met, he had just finished a music theater Master’s degree at NYU).  We hit it off when we wrote The Hunger Art in 2008 for ALT.  Royce is a great collaborator because he is easy to work with.  If something isn’t working, he isn’t too precious with his words.  He has a wonderful sense of lyricism—his words sing with great ease.  His dramatic instinct is also very good, but his most valuable quality is his twisted imagination.  His characters are often bizarre or fantastic, but their motivations are always easy to understand, if not familiar.

Quincy is a very accomplished playwright.  We also met through ALT and started to write opera at the same time (2007), so we were learning constantly.  Quincy is very good at making realistic, terse dialogue which lends itself to a kind of fast-paced, tightly flowing music.  Both librettists have their own style.  This affects the kind of music that I write in subtle ways.  It is interesting to compare how different librettists (or composer-librettists) can effect the music that the composer writes. The librettist is very important, kind of like the skeleton of an animal—they can make or break an opera.

We heard that you’ll be working again with playwright Royce Vavrek, collaborating on an opera based on the Roman emperor Caligula. How did you both choose the subject? Any initial thoughts on this new project?

This is in a very early stage—the research stage.  I have been interested in writing a Caligula opera since I took Bright Sheng’s opera writing class at the University of Michigan. Initially I wanted to base it around Camus’ Caligula.  Now I would rather make something more unusual.  I want to incorporate my use of microtonality, kulintang, and neurotic (psychotic?) opera characters in this opera. The opera will comment on universal themes of anxiety, power and existence.  What do you do when you have absolute power? To what extent do we have free will? What is the purpose of morality?

For your Residency at Bloomingdale School of Music, you’ll be writing a requiem for the JACK Quartet and soprano Martha Cluver. Could you describe this project?

A little over a year ago, my sister-in-law passed away from a sudden aneurism. She was my age.  I immediately decided that I had to make a kind of musical offering to commemorate her life.  Since then, I have been in talks with JACK and soprano Martha Cluver.  The idea is to make a requiem which is intimate and personal, not grandiose at all.  I am still trying to find the right texts and format, but I like the idea of using some of the Latin Requiem texts interspersed with poems from various sources.  Musically this will combine my vocal writing that I have focused on with the operas, and the instrumental music of the type I used in dopamine.  I would eventually like to make a web video so that people can see and hear the piece from wherever they are. 

You’re also a new dad – more congrats! Do you play your music to the baby? And if you could, how would you describe your music to the baby?

Thanks! The baby was already attending concerts in the womb. He kicked to the sounds of percussion. I have mostly been playing him Katy Perry and Rameau harpsichord pieces. I can’t imagine what he thinks.  When he was being driven back from the hospital we were listening to Black Sabbath.  I want him to understand tempo and rhythm, at least for now. I try to play him music with a pulse.

What is next on the horizon for you?

Other than the aforementioned projects (Hilary Hahn, Maren of Vardø, Buried Alive, the requiem, and Caligula) I would like to make an electronic piece based on sounds from inside the piano. When I was in Hawaii, I recorded a catalogue of samples as raw material.  My plan is to make a collection of short pieces with the island theme. Each piece will be an island—its own little world, with its own rules.  Each piece will be titled after an actual island.  That is all I have so far, but I think this could be a really fun project and a new direction for my music.


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