Huffpost Arts
Daniel J. Kushner Headshot

SONiC Festival Interview #1: Alex Temple

Posted: Updated:

It is no secret that the new music community has found a vital home in New York City in recent years. The creative minds behind what is known as "contemporary classical music" are innumerable, and gaining perspective can be an overwhelming task for audiences.

Beginning on October 14, however, the SONiC Festival (Sounds of a New Century) will venture to make sense of the scene -- particularly as it pertains to composers under the age of 40 -- with a 9-day festival in New York featuring a staggering 100-plus composers and more than 17 word premiere performances of newly commissioned works.

I recently spoke with Alex Temple, a composer of one such work, whose Liebeslied for female voice, electronics, and chamber orchestra will be performed by the American Composers Orchestra at the SONiC Festival's opening concert at Zankel Hall on Friday, October 14.

Alex Temple performing with new music ensemble The Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles.

Daniel J. Kushner: You've described your new composition, Liebeslied -- which will be premiered by the American Composers Orchestra and soprano Mellissa Hughes as part of the SONiC Festival -- as a "dreamlike refraction of love songs from the 1940s and 50s." Can you talk about your specific inspiration for this piece?"

Alex Temple: The piece I wrote for ACO and Mellissa [Hughes], it was inspired by a realization I had while listening to the song "Till There Was You" [from The Music Man]... So I was listening to "Till There Was You," and I was listening to the lyrics, and for some reason it occurred to me to take them literally, and I thought, This really scary. "There were bells on a hill, but I didn't hear them ringing/Till there was you" -- well that's really kind of a frightening idea. And then I was thinking about "I Only Have Eyes for You," which is the opposite but equally scary. Rather than being unable to perceive the world until the singer meets their beloved, in "I Only Have Eyes for You," the singer -- as a result of being with the person, can't perceive the world. And I was thinking about the line "I don't know if we're in a garden or on a crowded avenue" -- I'm like, this sounds like something out of Last Year at Marienbad or something, some kind of disorientingly [sic] surreal film. And then the other thing I was thinking about is that a lot of music from that period sonically also seems very eerie to me, partially because the vocals are mixed a little too high with respect to the instruments -- which makes them sound somehow enlarged or heightened -- and partially because there tends to be a lot of reverb...

[In Liebeslied] there's sort of an introductory passage which is simulating reverb orchestrally, but once the voice comes in it starts out more or less being in the style of a ballad from the 40s or 50s. But it kind of is edging in towards German Romantic orchestral lieder too in certain spots because I was interested in the idea that those two repertoires are more similar than they're sometimes given credit for, both textually and musically. I found some really strange chord progression -- I can't remember what it is now -- in Tony Bennett's "Because of You," and I was thinking, Strauss could have written this and it wouldn't have seemed out of place.

And the piece as it continues gradually starts taking these cells apart and abstracting them and taking them into darker and stranger places, but the initial impetus for it was really specifically conceived of in reference to an existing musical repertoire, and I feel like that's true of 75-80 percent of the pieces that I write. I'm very interested in commenting on the musical and cultural history. "Commenting" makes it sound like there's a specific message, which isn't necessarily true. And "playing with" sounds a little too humorous, maybe. The best way to put it would be "engaging with."

DK: It sounds like Liebeslied takes the already existing lexicon inherent in these love song standards and makes them literal and interprets them in a way that's more true to the experience of falling in love.

AT: That would be a very cynical view of love. I think if anything it's a critique of how love is portrayed in those songs. I find a lot of the ways that love is portrayed in art in general, both popular and formal, to be very creepy. It tends to be obsessive, it tends to be stalker-ish -- it tends to be overwhelming to the point that it destroys your ability to function. I don't think that's what a good relationship is like. I don't think anybody who has good relationships thinks that what a good relationship is like. And so I look at these songs and I think, What a horrible idea, that love would actually make you blind to the world around you. For example, another song I was looking up is "Laura." That one's interesting 'cause it's in the second person, actually. So the listener is put in the position of imagining themselves as somebody who lost a lover at some point in the past and just absolutely can't stop thinking about her. "The face in the misty light" and the "footsteps you hear down the hall," everything that the fictional listener hears or sees is Laura. And again, I'm thinking, That sounds awful! I don't think it's romantic, I think it's distressing.


Alex Temple's A Presentation to the Board

AT: I've written a lot of pieces that are stylistically referential, but I've been moving increasingly over the course of the last nine years or so toward being interested in the meanings of the things I'm referencing. Because when I started out doing it I originally just thought of it as fun and playful, and increasingly I'm interested in it as--well, initially as an oblique cultural commentary and then more and more as actual social critique....Definitely part of my intention is to say, "Hey, wait a second: the images we're using to represent love--and although those songs are not current the ideas are still around--these images are actually really disturbing. I don't want to say too much about the ending of the piece because I want it to be a surprise, but I'll say that the protagonist of the song--I don't think the relationship that she's in is such a good one.

For more information about the SONiC Festival, visit the official SONiC Festival website.

This interview is cross-posted at You're So Post-Post-Rock Right Now.