Recital Talk with Sivan Silver-Swartz '15

Senior composition student discusses the creative process and more.

April 18, 2015

Conservatory Communications Staff

Sivan Silver-Swartz recital poster.

Senior recital is a crowning achievement for any conservatory student. We talked about the experience with senior composer Sivan Silver-Swartz' 15.

Could you describe your recital?

My recital is a single piece, a little over an hour long. It’s for a cello trio and a percussion trio, each in a different room, separated by a hallway. The audience is welcome to walk between the two rooms as they wish throughout the performance. Each performer additionally has a tape player. The tapes that they play have on them the part of the parallel player in the other room—so, for example, the first cellist has the tape part of the first percussionist and vice versa. The result is that what you hear in one room live and coordinated you hear in the other room on tape and, because of the nature of three tape players playing independently of each other, uncoordinated. The piece itself is composed of a single, monophonic, extended chord progression over the entire piece, on top of which is layered, at certain points, a round (in the sense of an unchanging melody distributed like a canon to the different parts). The essential temporal structural components are exactly the same in both rooms; so when the cellos play a chord, for example, the percussionists at that same point in the score also play a “translation” of that cello chord into percussion language. That’s something of a description, at any rate.

What or who inspires you?

I’m very much inspired by a wide range of composers and music that has to it a certain kind of pacing—a kind of limitation on what one hears over time: a limitation on the rate of the change in the music and the variety of types of sounds you hear. At some point, about two or three years ago, I became frustrated listening to a lot of music that I felt, in its attempts to be exciting and not lose your attention, moved too quickly. It ended up having the opposite effect for me: I had only started to enjoy the sounds I was hearing before it was all of a sudden on to the next one, which made me want to pay less attention to it. The music of people like Bryn Harrison, Peter Ablinger, Catherine Lamb, Morton Feldman, and Aldo Clementi has influenced me in this regard. Their music, whether it’s four hours long (as with Feldman’s) or hardly ever longer than 10 minutes (as with Clementi’s), has a kind of focus on the rate of sound that makes, for me, extraordinarily rewarding listening, and so I found I almost couldn’t not do it in my own music.

Around the same time that I was getting bored with “exciting” music, I started getting into just intonation, which the piece on my recital also features. Just intonation is an alternate tuning system based on the overtone series, a series of notes derived from natural acoustical resonance. Basically, we’re dealing with the infinite number of notes in between the piano keys, and the result of playing in just intonation is a sound world that is both recognizable and unfamiliar. The harmonies you get are, to my ears, stunning and fascinating, harmonies you could never derive from equal temperament (the type of tuning system on a piano and used almost universally everywhere else). People like Marc Sabat, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Cat Lamb (again), and James Tenney are some of my favorite composers to use just intonation. You may notice that all of these influences are very specific composers—I’m not saying that such-and-such a novel or political situation or part of nature influenced me. That’s in part because I’ve been most interested in creating certain specific musical phenomena. They have some connection to other, non-musical interests of mine—one big one is the process of assembling the contents of the piece, which is influenced by the aesthetics of information, catalogs, and organization—but those interests don’t necessarily have inherent “meaning” outside of my personal predilection to their aesthetic. Someday, perhaps, I would feel comfortable writing a piece “about,” say, some political situation I’m passionate about. That’s not today, though.

What strategies do you use to prepare for a big composition?

Start early and work consistently on it. The latter in particular is easier said than done. I’m a very slow worker when it comes to composition, and often a perfectionist in a kind of debilitating way. I usually just think about what I’m writing for a while. In this case, it was at least a good month or so before I put down anything resembling (musical) notes, and then probably another two months until I put down a single note with the intention of it being definitely part of the piece. Instead I made a lot of (text) notes and sketches about ideas and tests of different methods and processes I was developing, and figuring out logistical stuff. This is just my way of working, though it’s much more of a “top-down” approach, where I start from the concept of the sounds that I want, an idea of the general aesthetic and process of it in my head, more so than, say, sitting down at a piano and letting sounds I make “in the real world” guide the rest of the piece. Often I construct processes that “write themselves”—the process is what makes the individual decisions on which exact notes go where, for example. The challenge is to design the process well enough so that it create an end result I like. This means that often I don’t have a super-precise idea of how it sounds until the process is finished. So I often don’t work with actually hearing the sounds that the piece makes until a pretty late stage, at which I’m fiddling with the results that my process created in order to tailor them to what I’m looking for. At that point, there’s a lot of writing down of what’s essentially data I’ve produced, which in this case takes the form of musical notation. I don’t see the data as something cold and mechanical, though—the result, I hope, is a world of sound that, because of the process of producing “data,” sounds complex, and rich, and puzzling, and, yes, warm, in a way I couldn’t have made if I made individual decisions on every single note. When it comes to actually putting on this performance, that comes down to a lot of grunt work. Asking performers if they’re interested in performing it, coordinating rehearsals and (in this case) recording sessions, and thanking them a million times for their incredible generosity (not to mention their incredible musical talents). Also, scouring eBay for cheap, vintage tape recorders.

What do you hope to be doing 10 years from now?

I have absolutely no idea! I would love to be able to somehow make a career out of composing and/or performing my own music, but that’s an extremely difficult thing to do. I’ve always made music both in the “pop” world, where you form a band and write songs and perform, and in the “classical” world, where there’s often a heavier emphasis on notation and the composer as distinct from the performer. I do know that no matter what I do, I don’t want to give up the other entirely—even if I find some success composing experimental classical music for chamber ensembles, I don’t want to stop playing in and writing songs for a rock band I’m in, and vice versa. That’s what I hope to be doing—what’s likely is another question.

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