Ecstatic Music Festival Interview #4: Owen Pallett

On March 9 at 7:30 p.m. in New York City's Merkin Hall, Ecstatic Music Festival all-star Nadia Sirota joins two indie songwriters -- pianist Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) and violinist Owen Pallett -- in an evening of new music by the aforementioned composers, as well as Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli. One new premiere, Owen Pallett's new viola sonata called Five Offerings, seeks to explore formalist details through the medium of miniatures. "It's kind of meant to evoke the way that steam and smoke will kind of rise and interact with the environment," the composer says of his composition. In a recent transcontinental conversation, Pallett expounded upon the experience of writing for other musicians and the importance of creating idiosyncratic instrumentation.

Daniel J. Kushner: Do you have to prepare differently when writing for other musicians, whether it be arranging or writing brand new works?

Owen Pallett: I guess I do, but I have no way of really putting it into words. It's kind of like the difference between whether you're cooking for company or cooking for yourself.

Kushner: It's interesting that you chose the cooking analogy, 'cause that's been going around a lot it seems.

Pallett: Nico Muhly really started it, you know, because he started comparing himself as a composer to a short order cook, and comparing music to food, as like this thing that people eat.

And I mean, I feel completely the opposite of him -- like I don't actually feel like a short order cook at all and I don't really feel like music is meant to be digested like food, but I thought it was a really interesting point. And certainly, I think there is a definite parallel between cooking and artistic creation. It was just kind of a very stimulating idea.

Kushner: How does collaborating specifically with Nadia and Thomas challenge you as a musician?

Pallett: Well, one of the things that I like about working with them is that I know that aside from being extremely talented players, they have a very serious commitment to performing new music. It's very important to me that I write idiosyncratically for the instruments that I'm writing for, because essentially there's a lot of work in the violin repertoire or the piano repertoire that I feel as if I'm not interested in learning, simply because there are some technical aspects of it that just make it difficult to play. And I feel like, kind of as a performer, it devalues a piece when it becomes--do you understand what I'm saying? I haven't actually ever had to try to verbalize this before.

Kushner: It sounds like you're talking about trying to stay away from -- for lack of a better word -- a modernist impulse to sort of overcomplicate things in terms of its playability.

Pallett: Not necessarily. I'm interested in creating works that are extremely playable, because I feel as if over time, pieces that are playable -- and I'm not saying playable as in easy. I mean playable as in idiosyncratic, like this really tricky run actually rolls off the fingers really nicely when you learn it. Once you get it into your fingers, it just rolls right off; you know what I'm saying?

A good example for me, just because it's something I'm very familiar with, is Bach's solo violin sonatas... the sonatas are really difficult to play, and some of them I just feel are so beautifully composed and others are a little clunkier. So for example, the G-minor fugue -- which every violinist learns around the age of 16 or so -- is such a wonderful piece that you feel happy to kind of suffer through the difficulty of learning these sort of four-note chords and crazy arpeggios and stuff like that; whereas the A-minor fugue is itself kind of long and kind of tedious, and so it's kinda hard sometimes to really justify wanting to learn that thing.

But my point is just that it's really important to me to create a piece that is going to be fun to play for the musicians, because I feel like it's going to make these musicians want to return to this piece and to play it more often. It's like the same thing with Chopin and Debussy. I mean, the people who like Chopin, Debussy the most are pianists because both Chopin, Debussy were pianists, and you play Chopin, Debussy -- everything just rolls right off the piano; it just sounds fantastic. Everything is right there, just waiting to be learned.

Kushner: It sounds like there's a consideration on your part for the longevity of a piece within the future repertory, as far as you can say, "Well, for my part, I can write something that is going to be enjoyable for the players to play, and also hopefully to a certain extent, enjoyable for people to listen to, and then perhaps that'll ensure that it continues to get played.

Pallett: Well, the way that you're saying it makes me sound kind of a little presumptuous, as if I think that my music is gonna be played for hundreds of years or something like that, which is not necessarily what I'm thinking about. More I'm actually even just thinking about writing it for the performance in mind, and just the fact that if you write something that is fun to play and works well on the instrument, then the people will rehearse it. People will practice it, and they'll feel inclined to learn it, and there won't be like a few bars where something is actually like, "Oh, well that is really difficult and impossible."

For more information on the March 9 concert featuring Nadia Sirota, Thomas Bartlett, and Owen Pallett, visit here.