January 23, 2021. This date was marked on my calendar for a couple of reasons, one being the kick off to Town Hall Seattle’s Global Rhythms Series. It wasn’t just that I was excited to see local musicians who carry the musical traditions of their homelands—but because it was my culture and homeland that was being represented.
While Mako and Munjuru performed traditional Okinawan music, dance, and storytelling that helps deepen our understanding of their community and culture, I had the very distinct pleasure to have a running commentary from my mom who provided an additional perspective on the traditions of the Okinawan culture. Breaking down the instruments, the different styles of Okinawan music, and the differences between Ryusou Fashion and how it differs from the traditional attire of the main Japanese island. This led us to what we call the “Okinawan Room” at my parents house. Here you can see a beautiful Hanagasa (traditional Okinawan Hat) hanging from the wall and a sanshin on display – just don’t ask any of us to play it.
Watching the performance also led us to some deeper conversations and stories that I had never known: from my mom being taught to hide in the sugar cane fields whenever she saw US military soldiers to using caves for shelter as air strikes were happening to the villages. As my mom told these stories, there was something about having Mako and Munjuru’s style of koten music playing in the background that provided a perfect score to my mom’s life.
I want to thank Town Hall Seattle for providing me the opportunity to openly connect with my culture through their Global Rhythm Series, and more importantly for igniting conversations with my (Okasan) mother about her truths and history of Okinawa. We are planning a trip to the homeland once we feel it is safe to travel again.
Masao Yamada is a community leader who has founded youth programs/organizations with a focus on career development, arts equity, civic engagement, social justice and more. Yamada has recently developed and guided youth in co-founding a youth-led/operated radio station, Ground Zero Radio, and is part of a city-wide Creative Advantage initiative to establish equitable access to arts education for every student in Seattle Public Schools. Yamada currently sits on the Board of Directors for WheelLab and the Intiman Theatre, and is an Board Member for the Melodic Caring Project and One Love Foundation. In summer 202, Yamada became an organizer for the Seattle Children’s March and is an adult advisor to the Youth Advocates for System Change Council. To learn more about Yamada, you can follow him on Instagram @y_masao .
If you missed Mako and Munjuru’s performance, you can still purchase a subscription to the series until March 10, which will grant you exclusive access to a replay of this impactful program.
Our Town Music chamber series has returned! In this age of COVID-19, the season has been transformed. Town Music, in the coming weeks and months, will explore how digital spaces can enhance our experience of art, rather than simply remind us of what we are missing.
Joshua Roman, Town Music’s Artistic Director, has spent much time in quarantine thinking about what a season of concerts can be without a concert hall for everyone to gather in. He sat down with correspondent Jonathan Shipley to discuss what it means to be a curator in this day and age and what silver linings there may be in a pandemic.
JS: What’s the role of a curator?
JR: To present a view of what chamber music is right now. It’s my responsibility to have the audience trust me. I don’t want to push audiences, I want to pull them into new discoveries. I want to develop a circle of collaboration with them. I want them to experience those discoveries and have that discovery bring them joy.
JS: Has that definition of being a curator changed with the pandemic upon us?
JR: The pandemic has given me a lot more time to think. That’s been the most meaningful thing for me – to think about what’s been done (what we’ve always done), and what we can do now to change things and experiment; to find out what is possible.
JS: You mentioned you have been asking yourself, ‘What is chamber music today’? What answer have you come up with?
JR: It’s constantly evolving. There has been a lot more emphasis, particularly in the last decade or so, on new music. That’s very exciting. I’m always wanting to showcase new music, while looking back on those old favorites. Remember that those old favorites that we know and love were brand new when they were played. Audiences were eager to hear the latest from Beethoven, or Brahms, or whomever. What was new music back then is now classical music. I want to honor that tradition.
JS: Has that evolved at all as you thought about the coming season? Do you not only want to reflect what it is today but push it forward towards some new future?
JR: I’m a preacher’s kid, but I’ve also always had a rebellious spirit. I appreciate the structure of something but, also, what can I do to push it? Chamber music is no longer funded by kings. Chamber music today is being present and creating something new while honoring the past.
JS: You have to know the rules before you break them.
JR: Exactly. I love learning history. I love context. I love connecting something from the past to the present. What is the same as it was during Beethoven’s time? What is different? From that, what can I apply to a coming concert?
JS: What does it mean to curate concerts when you can’t have concerts in a traditional sense?
JR: It’s changed my thoughts. We all want to experience a live concert. There’s nothing like sitting in an audience hearing a piece performed live. Now, though, there are no geographic barriers. If you have access to the internet, you can listen to a concert. But how can we make that more tangible? How can we make it a less passive activity? I’m thinking about that. It’s also giving me a chance to be more nimble. Instead of planning out a concert for, say, next February, I can respond to what’s happening in the world much sooner. If we want to reflect Seattle this week, we can.
JS: Not only is the nation facing the pandemic, we’re confronting racial inequities in this new uplift of the Black Lives Matter movement. What does it mean to curate as a white man in this era?
JR: We cannot afford to miss this opportunity to do better, to be better. My white privilege can help. Money, relationships, capital, space, attention, performers. I am blessed with resources. I want to allocate those resources that address the issues the best that I can.
I have been asking myself, ‘Am I the right person to do this? If not, can I change to be the right person? Or do I give it to someone better suited?’
JS: What are you, as a white man, doing to remove your blind spots in regards to race?
JR: Sit. Listen. Learn. I’ve attended seminars and discussions on DEI. I always welcome all these conversations.
JS: Does the pandemic give you any silver linings? Does it help that perhaps there is no going back to normal?
JR: The jury is out on that one. Each of us as a human being has an opportunity to sit back and see how things fall, or reach up and have a hand in how it all works out. We can take on these long-standing issues and better ourselves.
JS: Are there music organizations that have inspired you by what they’ve been doing during COVID?
JR: The Seattle Symphony. They were one of the first orchestras to adapt to the pandemic and it’s been really successful. The Music Academy of the West is another one. It’s been really heartening to see young musicians evolving, not only themselves, but music during this COVID time.
JS: What are you most excited about the coming season?
JR: I’m excited but also nervous. I’m excited to be nervous about all of this. This is all new. We’re all going into this together without knowing the outcome. There’s this vulnerability that I think everyone has been feeling. We’re not entirely in control and that’s both frightening and exciting. The creative spirit wants to explore and if we are all fully present with the right questions we can find meaningful answers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Emily Slider, a local world music aficionado, was in attendance at our most recent Haram Global Rhythms Concert. She was kind enough to send along this review. She’s reviewed Town Hall concerts in the past on the Town Crier and for KEXP.
On Sunday, March 1, The Great Hall was a melting pot of Arabic sound. Gordon Grdina was joined by an ensemble of ten musicians, each accomplished in his own right. Unlike previous concerts in the Global Rhythm series, which have included a local and a global performer playing separate and distinct sets, this concert was a collaboration with Gordon Grdina’s ensemble, Haram, featuring Marc Ribot on guitar.
The evening opened with a guitar solo by Ribot, which lured the audience into the captivating sound. On the cue of Grdina, Haram broke into what sounded like a celebratory Klezmer wedding song. The melody tiptoed down descending intervals, dancing its way around the hall. The woodwinds rose in dynamics as every instrument played its own melody or drone, creating a very atonal feel in the midst of this traditional song. To wrap up this first piece, the ensemble quickened its tempo until each instrument was racing the others to the finale of the song. Another song began with Grdina’s ear pressed to the body of his lute as though he were coaxing the precious sound out of its body and sharing a sacred gift with the audience. His fingers flew over the body of the lute, demonstrating his mastery of the instrument.
Each voice in the ensemble had its time to shine on stage, which made for some remarkable solos. The violin, played by Jesse Zubot, opened a piece by dragging the bow lightly across its highest string, creating an eerie atmosphere. He then crept his way up the strings ferociously, creating a string sound reminiscent of Kryzsztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia. During a clarinet solo, Francois Houle, popped his clarinet in half, covering the bottom of the shortened woodwind with his hand. It was as if each player on stage were challenging himself to find every way to evoke the most sound from his instrument. When the group incorporated a call-and-response vocal into the sound, it sounded less like a religious or traditional influence and more like a ska vocal sound. After a traditional Sudanese song, the feedback from an amp was augmented and became a voice onstage. Haram heightened the fuzzy noise until Grdina cut it off and the room fell into silence again.
Haram wove free-form jazz into traditional melodies with ease for the entire evening of music. The members onstage represented ensembles that ranged from anarchist punk to concert hall groomed jazz, and to see so many individual players meld into one sound was striking. Marc Ribot played exquisite solos, yet blended beautifully with the sound of Gordon Grdina and his Haram. The night provided a fascinating, unforgettable contrast between traditional and experimental sound.
It’s been nearly 160 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s the origin of species with its dazzling description of a model for the evolution of life inspired by those lovely whimsical finches. In that time, Evolutionary Science has advanced a long way, but according to Yale Ornithologist Richard Prum, something also has been lost: a scientific accounting, not just of the functional advantages that drive evolution, but of the aesthetics of animal sexuality that inspire individual choice.
He develops this theory in the new book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us which he will discuss at an upcoming Town Hall event on Monday, June 11 at the PATH Auditorium in downtown Seattle. But in the meantime we arranged a conversation between him and Grace Hamilton. Grace is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Washington and a participant in this year’s UW ScienceEngage program for public science communication. They spoke about the evolution of beauty, the terrifying arms race of duck genitalia and the queering of Homo Sapiens.
Grace Hamilton: I wanted to tell you first how much I enjoyed your book The Evolution of Beauty.
Richard Prum: I’m glad! That’s why you write it, to hopefully get some readers on the other end.
GH: Yeah, I’m not an ornithologist or an evolutionary biologist by training, but I really enjoyed the intellectual passion you bring to the task of resurrecting Darwin’s long neglected theory of mate choice, your dissection of the cultural biases that drove it out of the scientific mainstream in the first place, and the hypotheses about human evolution that this theory of aesthetic evolution provoked. Could you briefly define aesthetic evolution for listeners who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading your book?
RP: Aesthetic evolution is a process that involves a sensory perception, a cognitive evaluation, and some kind of social or sexual choice. And when these three things come together with some kind of heritable substrate or genetic or cultural substrate, then the result is a distinct kind of evolution that I have called aesthetic evolution. And it’s distinct because the features that evolve this way function in the perception of animals, not in the physical world. So we can compare, for example, the roots of a plant to the flower of the plant. The roots we could describe entirely in terms of their physical functions: holding the plant into the soil, absorbing water and nutrients of some kinds and also interacting with bacteria or fungi in the soil, these kinds of things. But the flower functions in the brain—if you will—of the bee or the hummingbird, the pollinator. And in that way, it functions in a distinct fashion where perception and essentially the taste of the animals matters.
GH: But this isn’t how the field of Evolutionary Biology, how they tend to view traits. Usually the argument is that these traits are not just for the perceptual benefit of others, but that they must convey some sort of information about reproductive value. So what led you down this very different mode of viewing evolution?
RP: Yeah, quite right. The majority of my colleagues think that the pleasure of animals or the subjective experiences of animals, if you will—what it is like to be a bird listening to a song or a bee looking at a flower—most of my colleagues think that these experiences need to be explained away, that is as some kind of utility. And this is a worldview that requires that requires that adaptation by natural selection is a strong force that kind of dominates all the events in evolutionary history. However, somehow or other, the way I have connected my own personal history as a birdwatcher and as a national historian to my scientific research, I’ve just been attracted to another idea, a different theory, and it’s one that actually is historically the original one proposed by Darwin in 1871. And that is the idea that beauty can evolve because of the pleasure it produces, because of the fact that animals like it, right? And that alone can drive the evolution of ornament, sexual ornament in nature in many different ways that are unpredicted by adaptation.
GH: You study one of the most classically beautiful areas of biology, the birds, and what made you think that these ideas initially based on the observation of birds and their mating behavior, could be fruitfully applied to human evolution as you do so excitingly, in The Evolution of Beauty?
RP: Yeah. Well, a lot of my colleagues ask me “Rick, why would you create this mess for yourself? Why would you get involved with talking about people?” and there’s a lot of reasons. One: people are important! How we think about our own sexuality, our own sexual selves, our own beauty has really been influenced greatly by the same kind of science that I have been battling essentially in ornithology. That is the idea from evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, areas of evolutionary biology that have worked on human evolution, have been trying to support the idea that human beauty, whether it’s asymmetry or waist-to-hip ratio or various kinds of aspects of human beauty are all indicators of genetic or quality or condition. Right? And, and I think much of this work is notably bad science, and so that’s one reason to counter it, but it also has, I think, come to influence how people think about themselves. How humans think about their own sexual self.
So I think children or teenagers today grow up looking in the mirror with more challenges than teenagers had in the past in the sense that they look at every asymmetry or every difference from maybe canonical descriptions of beauty and imagine that that indicates actually objective qualities of themselves. And that idea is just deeply flawed scientifically and deeply damaging culturally. And so one of the reasons why to take on the evolution of human sexuality was to try to address that and propose a different path to understanding how we got here, how we got to be this way.
GH: In your book I found it very poignant your discussion of this bad science that often occurs in evolutionary psychology. How there are attempts to “quantify” even female beauty—and usually female beauty—in terms of things like waist-to-hip ratio or facial asymmetry.
RP: One of the oddities of the field is it takes a lot of intellectual shortcuts, but one that’s really prominent is to state that sperm are cheap and eggs are rare and expensive, relatively, and therefore males should be profligate and females should be sexually coy. And this has typically been played out as a sort of rich explanation of human reproductive biology. And I try to document in the book how failed that really is in many ways.
GH: And you cite a sort of intellectual antipathy towards the evolutionary power as female sexual autonomy as something that goes all the way back to Darwin and something that may have predisposed many evolutionary biologists to be hostile to aesthetic evolution.
RP: You know, a number of reviews and some of my colleagues have asked me: “why get into the political history of evolutionary biology and some of these topics?” And I think it’s responsible as a scientist to understand the implications of your statements, so I’ve gotten into these issues because I think that the culture has influenced the science—and not in a good way.
GH: You’ve done fascinating, and in some quarters notorious, research into the torrid sex lives of ducks.
RP: Yeah. I’ve come to realize that duck sex is like a gas; it expands to fill whatever volume you put it in. Keeping it hemmed in a little bit. Yes, we have been working duck sex with my former Postdoc, Patricia Brennan, now a professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and her work has really been revolutionary in understanding an area of Evolutionary Biology called sexual conflict. It turns out it is quite related to the evolution of beauty and it’s really about what happens when freedom of mate choice is infringed or violated by sexual coercion or sexual violence. So the rather violent and troubling sex lives of the ducks turn out to be really instrumental in understanding sexual conflict in a new way. And that’s a big focus of the book.
GH: I was struck by your discussion of this research in The Evolution of Beauty. You assert that the revelation of an aesthetic mechanism for the evolution of female sexual autonomy in waterfowl is a profound feminist scientific discovery. What does it mean for a scientific finding to be feminist?
RP: Well, since the 70’s and on, there has been a fascinating literature in feminist science, feminist biology. But much of it is a cultural critique of science itself, and that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m not talking about science that starts with some kind of political conclusions or assumptions and then elaborate theories. I’m talking about finding that aspects of the political and cultural debate of feminism—and by contrast, patriarchy—are actually evolved in other species than human beings. In the case of duck sex, the discovery is that freedom of choice matters to animals, right? There is something it is like to have freedom of choice, and as a result when freedom of choice is violated by coercion or sexual violence, there turned out to be evolutionary consequences of that.
And the way in which they work is deeply fascinating and I think actually informative to both human evolutionary biology and contemporary culture. So I think of this as a feminist discovery in the sense that we’re finding out that the concerns of human culture and of human wellbeing and thriving are not unique to us. Sexual autonomy is not a concept discovered by suffragettes and feminist in the 19th and 20th century only. It is an evolved feature of the social sexual lives of other kinds of animals. And that opens up a whole new kind of conversation between evolutionary biology, feminism, and gender theory that I’m very excited about.
GH: It’s fascinating stuff. But because of this research funded by the National Science Foundation, studying sexual autonomy and a sort of terrifying genital arms race between male and female ducks, you were briefly the right-wing poster child for profligate government spending. What was that like? That sounds like every scientist’s nightmare.
RP: Well, it was a bit horrifying. So what happened was during one particular phase of debate about government spending during the Obama administration, our grant to study the evolution of the evolution duck sex, the co-evolution of sexual conflict in ducks, was found by a right wing think tank and then soon became the subject of Fox News and other attacks. You know, it was sobering. But one of the things that we were confident of is that duck sex is fascinating, right? The fact of the matter is that the reason why they picked—in one case, $30 billion of government waste and they’re picking on our $350,000 grant—the reason why it’s so fascinating is that duck sex is fascinating! And we knew that if we had, if you will, a fair fight or a level playing field that people would find it fascinating and worthwhile
GH: And it’s not just the sex lives of ducks though, that you talk about in The Evolution of Beauty. You have a whole chapter called “The Queering of Homo Sapiens” in which you— and I’ve heard several theories about the evolution of homosexuality in humans, the idea that it’s kin selection, that this will somehow benefit the nieces and nephews of people with exclusively same-sex attractions—but you posit a new theory that I hadn’t heard before: that males with traits associated with same-sex preferences were actually preferred as mates by females. I was wondering if anyone had pointed out that this theory is an inversion of a classic lament that all the good ones are gay. You’re saying that rather than all the good ones are gay, all the gay ones are good—as in desirable.
RP: Well, you know, starting with a study with a human sexuality is complicated because of course there’s a lot going on! You know, there’s male choice, female choice, male/male competition, female competition, sexual conflict, and culture all piled on top. And so I originally imagined one chapter on human sexuality, but it turned into four because doing it responsibly took so much more time. But you’re right, there is a chapter on the evolution of same-sex preferences and attractions and that I, it as you stated, propose a new theory. And basically what I’m proposing is that same-sex behavior, both between women and men, evolved because it furthered female sexual autonomy during our human evolution. That is, female/female sexual interactions would foster alliances that were appropriately defensive against male sexual and social control—essentially a male hierarchy—and that male/male sexual interactions would also further a social environment that would be less focused on the control of female sexuality and allow females with more social opportunities to further their own autonomous interests.
And so what this means is interesting in two ways. One: it is congruent with the more conservative hypothesis that may be represented by Andrew Sullivan, who wrote a book called Virtually Normal. Which was basically that the gay couple next door are just like everybody else except for who’s in their bed, right? And this is the sort of normalizing view. And it’s true in that sense that I think that this is a deep part of evolutionary history, of the changing of the evolution of a pro-social human species.
However, this hypothesis is also congruent with the more radically queer theorists within the discipline who see same-sex behavior as inherently disruptive. And the reason why I use the term “queering” of Homo Sapiens is to say that same-sex attraction I think evolved specifically because it functions to undermine male social and sexual hierarchy. That is, it evolved because of this feature, which means that there is something inherently queer about it. “Queering” in the sense of undermining the normal, undermining the control, undermining in this case male social control. So I think there’s something for everybody in there. This is a way of opening up the topic that begins with the aesthetic. Previous theories have tried to explain same-sex behavior through its indirect or correlated features, right? But I’ve been saying that at the center of this biology is subjective experience.
What is it that animals want? What do they prefer? And in this case, when it comes to the diversity of human sexual preferences and desires, we can see that we can’t just explain it away as “oh, gay folks are helping raise their nieces and nephews and therefore that’s how the genes are propagated,” right? These are end-arounds, these are dodges, if you will. The real issue is the evolution of desire itself. And that’s something that other previous theories have not gotten to. And so I’m trying to propose that, and by taking the aesthetic view that means that that becomes our, our main question: how does desire itself, how does the object of desire, evolve? And that’s, I think, why it’s been a successful idea.
Richard Prum is the author of The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us out now from Doubleday books. He spoke with Grace Hamilton, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry at the University of Washington. He will be speaking about the book on Monday, June 11 at 7:30pm at the PATH Auditorium.
You just a heard a selection from the first part of Tornado, a new piece composed by Town Music Artistic Director Joshua Roman and performed by the JACK Quartet. Over the course of 27 minutes, the piece takes the audience from that peaceful musical setting into the eye of a whirlwind and out again to the other side.
Tornado will have its Seattle debut next week on Thursday, May 10 as part of our Town Music series. But in the meantime we arranged a conversation between Joshua Roman and Melinda Bargreen, a writer, music critic and composer based in Seattle. They spoke about Tornado, and Roman’s developing work as a composer.
Melinda Bargreen: I’m curious about your new work that we’re going to be hearing in Seattle, Tornado, where it came from, where the title came from and how the commission took shape?
Joshua Roman: Yes. So I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve been in, I never bothered to count but enough tornadoes that counting seems silly. I grew up with the weekly test sirens on Saturday afternoon at noon. I love them! They’re horrible and they’re scary and they’re just these giant pieces of nature that just come out of the sky and still you with… you can’t avoid it. You can’t ignore it. It just takes over. And I think there’s something incredibly powerful about that and about nature, and that’s the natural disaster that we had in Oklahoma. Now we also have earthquakes. But back when I was growing up it was basically just tornadoes. Maybe love is the wrong word, but I had this extreme fascination with tornadoes. And so when I’m thinking about writing something for the JACK String Quartet, which was how this came about because I’d worked with the JACK String Quartet.
We love playing quintets together. We had Jefferson Friedman write us one that Town Hall commissioned years ago, and Ari (Streisfeld), the former violinist from JACK arranged some Gesualdo madrigals. And we started playing around with how to build the repertoire out. And I had started composing in the meantime. And so we figured: well, that’s easy, while we’re trying to decide how we take the next step, let’s just go ahead and move forward. I’ll write a piece for us and we’ll have an even more complete program that we can take around and play together. And so when I started thinking about that, I really wanted to give myself a way to utilize JACK’s strengths, which there are many of, but one that sets them apart is their ability to just tackle all sorts of crazy stuff and make it fit together. I mean, they’ll play John Zorn and Gesualdo in the same program. It’s amazing. So I wanted to write something that really gave us something to sink into in that way. And when I start as a composer, each piece, it helps me—sometimes I can get going with just a musical idea—but sometimes to think of that first musical idea, I want to have some non-musical inspiration. And for this I just thought of the chaos in the swirling of a tornado and that would be such a wonderful way to have a context for me to explore JACK’s sounds and how we could play together. And so it sort of built out from there. But the original kernel of this was finding a way to marry working with the JACK Quartet with really being myself. And this is how it all fits together.
MB: Well, I noticed in the music there’s a great deal of pictorial element, which I think is fascinating because it really does suggest a tornado. First: it sounds like you’re opening with something sort of jaunty and pastoral. There even sounds like there’s a little quote from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
JR: Funny. I didn’t even notice that. But it is. Yes.
MB: That is funny. Yeah. And then of course things escalate from there and I swear at one point we are hearing a siren warning. Is this accurate? Like a tornado siren?
JR: Yes, there is a spot where the viola does it, and then the other strings come up and join in. It’s right as the not-so-literal—the figurative funnels start to develop. This swirling starts to really come out of this chaotic sound. So yeah there are elements in there for sure.
MB: It’s fantastic. It seems to me there may be a theater element in there somewhere too. Some of the effects that I’m hearing on the strings. I wish I were seeing as a listener in a concert hall because I know you’re doing weird stuff there that I can’t tell except by sounds.
JR: Oh yeah. That is the wheelhouse of the JACK String Quartet. So there’s lots of slapping the strings with the bow. I play the tailpiece at one point. John, the viola player, turns his viola around and crunches the hair with the stick of the bow against the back of the viola. There’s something that we ended up just calling a “duck crunch” because there’s no name for it, but I had to notate it somehow. There’s all sorts of stuff that people will see.
MB: At some point it sounds like you’re actually blowing on the strings. Does that happen?
JR: Yes. So that’s actually the air sound, and I didn’t know what to call it besides air sound. It’s the bow being very lightly drawn across the strings while the left hand is touching them with the whole hand so that you don’t get harmonics. The idea is not to have any pitch, which is actually a little difficult, but to have just the sound of the wind, and it’s a very difficult but fun technique of just making string sound with the bow.
MB: That sounds so cool. Well, what I hear with the ears is pretty fascinating and I think it’s going to be one of these sort of concert/performance pieces where you really benefit from being in the hall.
JR: Yeah. I’ve found that. Of course I know what everyone’s doing, so when I listen to it I like to either be playing it, or: headphones on, all the lights out and then you just get immersed in that sound world and it’s quite terrifying. But seeing it, you really get a sense for all of the crazy things that are happening musically and instrumentally.
MB: I wanted to ask you, does the cello interest you a little less now that you’re composing more, just straight cello performance recitals, performance opportunities? And would you like to write more pieces based on purely the solo cello feel like Bach suites and all the famous pieces in the repertoire—the Britons—the things that only exercise your own instrument.
JR: It’s interesting. When I first started composing, largely there, there was some desire to do it for its own sake, but a lot of the push aside from what was coming from situations that came up was this philosophical notion that in order to understand the music of Bach and the music of Beethoven, I should challenge myself to put myself in their shoes, and actually write music. How can I interpret the work of somebody like Dvořák, if I have not sat down with a blank page and tried to turn it into a piece of music? A lot of this is still, for me, very much connected to playing and as much as I love composing I think I’m doing about the right amount right now. I wouldn’t want to do too much more because I’m still incredibly passionate about the cello.
And up to this point, I’ve written almost exclusively pieces that I would be involved in, and I’m not super interested in writing something that I wouldn’t be playing because I am still focused on the cello. And for me, this is about becoming in some ways, ironically, a more traditional classical musician going back to 18th and 19th century roots when that was just expected. I feel like it makes me, when I play Beethoven, it makes me more able to relate. And that’s been one of the really fun byproducts of throwing myself into this process. So for me it’s not really a conflict and it’s one of those things that I think when you talk about it in terms of branding, it can be a little difficult because it’s not something that people have been used to in recent decades, but if you’ve really looked back, that was their tradition to be making and playing music. And so I feel pretty good personally and artistically about how that all matches together and it’s a matter of making sure that people understand how it fits together, my colleagues and the people that I play for, that it’s all from the same place.
MB: That makes absolute perfect sense. A really well-rounded musician is able to do several things at once. It seems to me. And that’s certainly the direction that you have moved. Well, Joshua, one thing I’d like to say is that as a Seattle music lover and part of the community here, it has been so terrific having you come back periodically, watching you grow and develop, watching the way you change the soundscapes around you and the atmosphere of music in Seattle: from chamber to orchestral to solo to your ability to express yourself in words as well as music, so we feel very lucky here. I think everyone who loves music is eager to have you back in town.
JR: That’s so sweet. Thank you. I’ve always felt incredibly supported on this journey and when I go to Seattle, and even just these conversations—I carry them with me everywhere I go. I feel very much like Seattle is home. It’s a beautiful feeling and I don’t feel alone on this journey.
That was Joshua Roman, Artistic Director of the Town Music Series here at Town Hall. He spoke with Melinda Bargreen. The Seattle debut of his piece, Tornado, will be part of our upcoming concert with the JACK Quartet on Thursday, May 10 at Seattle’s First Baptist Church.