British composer Joseph Phibbs' 'Rivers to the Sea' aims to encapsulate a variety of emotions and places. The composer speaks about its performance at the 2012 Beethovenfest in Bonn and its tip of the hat to Manhattan.
DW: With "Rivers to the Sea"can we expect something along the lines of Debussy's "Le Mer?"
Joseph Phibbs: No. It's not a seascape or a sea symphony in a literal sense. I had more of a metaphorical backdrop of the sea in mind, in one respect, in terms of melodic line and how it may gain in intensity and density, which of course one can explore with the orchestra in a way you cannot with smaller groups.
Aside from that, the title is taken from an anthology of poems by American poet Sara Teasdale, who was based in Manhattan and died in the 1930s. The last movement of my work, entitled "Neon with Sunrise," is an attempt to betray something of Manhattan. I studied in upstate New York, but went to Manhattan quite a lot, and I've never really lost the bug of my experience being in that incredible city. I wanted a fast finale, so it seemed fitting. Many of the poems Teasdale incorporates into that book are based on Manhattan.
So the piece was there first and the title came after?
Actually, the title came in the middle of writing it. Partly because in each of the four movements, I wanted to capture very different worlds. The last, as I've described, is a cityscape. But the first I've subtitled "The Midnight Rose," and it's a soft nocture, a kind of gradual unfolding of the orchestra, almost as if a flower were blooming in the night. It's almost a surreal image.
The second movement, however, is much faster and more frenetic or even neurotic. I subtitled it "Night Fugues." These movements, incidentally, I've tried to link to a four-part symphonic structure. The first two are linked. But there's a central interlude for clarinet, strings and gong, which is a moment of stasis right in the middle of the structure.
The third movement is the slow movement, again linking back to the idea of a traditional symphonic structure, which dovetails into the final movement, which is the fast finale "Neon with Sunrise," as I've called it. So the title "Rivers to the Sea" occurred to me roughly in the middle of working on the piece, at which time I'd sketched out most of the movements but they still needed to come to fruition.
Mozart clearly had the listeners in mind when he composed. We know this because he wrote to his father about it. On the other hand, I once talked to a composer-conductor who felt he composed solely out of an inner necessity and in dedication to art, and didn't consider the listener at all when writing music. Where do you fit into this scheme?
I take a similar view that Stravinsky took: he tried to imagine himself being multiplied by however many people may have been in the audience. You imagine yourself as the ideal listener, which of course begs the question what you actually want to listen to. It requires real honesty on the part of the composer, which isn't always an obvious thing to achieve, especially if you've been through rigorous academic training. And if the results reach a wider audience, that's great! It's a real privilege to feel you've communicated something of yourself to other people.
Witold Lutoslawski, a composer I greatly admire, used to describe composing as a fishing for souls. For him, it was clearly an important component to feel he was at least reaching out to someone, and that shared experience was vitally important.
I understand you have strong affinity to developments in America, and the zeitgeist there...
I was highly influenced by my studies at Cornell and in particular with Steven Stucky. He's remained a friend and a composer I have an enormous admiration for. I'll never regret that decision of going to the States when I was about 24. It really was a wonderful experience because it opened up a new world of music, a new mindset. Apart from that, there's the geographical impact that going to the States has on Europeans; that sense of space was extraordinary. I do feel that's stayed with me, even though it's been ten years since I left Cornell.
In terms of creativity of composing, is it accurate to say that Americans are less orthodox?
Perhaps it's fair to say that there's a greater diversity of style in America - with a very large population, I guess that's inevitable. And with very different cities with their own music scenes - in New York, Chicago and L.A. Come over to England, and things tend to gravititate toward London, perhaps Birmingham. Having said that, there is a very good diversity of style in England. But broadly speaking, that's one of the positive aspects I found about being in America - feeling that you could do whatever you wanted, truly, and no one was going to shoot you down. That was very liberating.
Joseph Phibbs was born in London and studied at King's College in London and at Cornell University in upstate New York. His work "Rivers to the Sea," as performed at the most recent Beethovenfest in Bonn, can be heard on this week's Concert Hour.