AMN Interviews: Samuel Andreyev

Samuel Andreyev is a Canadian composer living in Strasbourg, France.  He was named a laureate of the 2012 Henri Dutilleux Prize and has received various other prestigious recognitions, such as the Casa de Velazquez Residency. Samuel Andreyev’s ‘meticulously framed moments feel like portals to alternate dimensions’ (Musicworks magazine). Andreyev travels extensively, maintaining an intensive composing, performing and lecturing schedule throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. Also a deeply unconventional singer-songwriter, he has released 8 albums of songs to date, including, most recently, The Tubular West (Torpor Vigil Records, 2013). 

You studied with New Complexity pioneer Brian Ferneyhough, and I was interested in how the laconic aspect of your music is largely absent in New Complexity.  Could you talk about how working with Ferneyhough influenced your compositional aesthetics?  

I should start by saying that I was never formally a student of Brian Ferneyhough.  I did follow his teaching on a number of occasions, and I was fairly regularly in touch with him at one point when I was a student. I found his work extremely intriguing when I was a composition student, not so much for its surface qualities or for the way that the notation looks, but more for the incredible wealth of different formal approaches that he invented in his work.  I also appreciated the sound of his music and the sense of humor. I think that’s something actually very few people have adequately appreciated in Ferneyhough’s music—just how funny it can be. It’s usually interpreted as this very hyper-serious thing. Having met him and worked with him, and having read his writings and his interviews, I’ve found that he’s an extremely funny person. The music is also often very funny in this completely off-the-wall way, and you don’t encounter that very much. 

So, there are a number of qualities in the music that I find very attractive. Ferneyhough also has an incredibly high degree of ambition, with which he’s willing to invent an entirely new approach, an entirely new language, entirely new technical procedures in his music, and a radically new sound world, basically from scratch. There certainly aren’t that many composers that are willing to do that or that are able to do it.  He’s somebody with great scope, incredible imagination. He’s absolutely brilliant.

That is, by the way, different from saying that I like everything he does or that I agree with every aspect of his approach. I’ve looked at his music and examined it from a critical perspective.  I’ve always tried to maintain a certain distance in that sense, where instead of merely accepting everything he has said in his writings at face value, I’ve tried to examine his claims and consider: “well, does this actually work? Does this actually make sense? Is this perceptible in the piece?”—these sorts of questions.  Even when I find a particular idea to be inadequate, there’s still something very stimulating about it. I accept his willingness to take risks and to fail. I think that’s also the mark of a great creator: being willing to take enormous risks and to fail quite spectacularly if that’s how it goes. I think part of the reason for that is that great creators tend to be enamored with the process of creation rather than the results of creation.  

I’m interested in the length of your pieces. Some of your pieces are about 10-minute single movement works, and your other pieces are very short, with many one or two minute movements in a piece in some cases. Could you talk about your motivations for writing pieces in that type of temporality, and also how you think your motivations for writing short pieces differ from those of Webern? 

In the history of Western music, the normal state of affairs was to write short pieces divided up into movements.  Western music generally follows this trend up until romanticism. Mahler’s idea of writing extremely long 30 minute movements, for example, and 90-minute-long symphonies, is an exception in the overall context of Western music. However, somehow, it became normal to write these long, single-movement works. There’s a lot of this in contemporary music, in which you have a piece that’s approximately 20 minutes long, usually written in one movement.  Morton Feldman actually used to make fun of composers who wrote those sorts of pieces, saying that one thing the world doesn’t need is another 20-minute-long piece for 16 instruments. 

And then he’d go and write a six-hour piece. 

That’s right. Yeah. I think Feldman’s statement is a very astute, but also a very funny point. And he’s quite right. There’s a kind of monotony in how formal strategies often work in different music. There just aren’t that many of them.  So, I try to base my music on, first of all, an appreciation of how people actually listen, and certainly how I listen.

And then the fact that musical forms that consist of a succession of panels that might be, let’s say, two or three minutes long, which are contrasted with one another, seem to be very satisfying. Also, you’ll notice that the length of a typical pop song is usually about three minutes.  That’s not an accident. It has to do with human perception and the amount of time that we can focus on something musical before we need some kind of a change. That’s not to say that that approach to listening is universal, because it’s absolutely not. If you listen to Indian music, for example, the timescale is much, much longer.  Some people find Mahler impossible to listen to it, because his music is too long, and they find it boring. However, other people will get swept along in the drama of it, and they’ll find it completely exhilarating. It’s hard to generalize about these things. For me, the design of things like the Bach B minor mass I find incredibly satisfying.  St. Matthew Passion, where you have a regular alternation of recitatives, and arias and chorales. In these pieces, you end up with an enormous textural variety in the scope of an extremely long piece, but nothing ever lasts for much more than about three or maybe four minutes.

The other thing is, the sound world of my pieces tends to be sort of jumpy, highly compacted, and boiled down to a small number of important elements.  There isn’t anything in the way of what you might call transitions or ornamentation in my pieces. They have a kind of skeletal quality a lot of the time. So, I don’t see how I could really or why I would need to draw that out into a much larger temporal frame.

Would you consider your pieces to be emotionally expressive, or more detached and atmospheric?

It’s probably not up to me to say—I hear very contradictory things from people who write things about my music, and comments that I’ve heard from listeners and critics are often incredibly diverse and divergent.  So, it’s hard for me to judge what the effect is of a particular piece, partly because primarily I’m dealing with my intuition. So, it’s not a question of setting out to create this or that type of world and then doing it.  Rather, the music emerges because of the way I hear and because of the way that I seem to conceive of music.

A number of people have commented that my pieces express a kind of fundamental loneliness, in the sense that they often use musical ideas that don’t really interact with each other, or are unable to interact with each other. So, they’re always separate somehow. One thing that does seem to come up quite frequently in my pieces is the concept of these little windows or slices of material where you’ll have a piece that’s going on and then all of a sudden, a door opens and then the door reveals another world for about two bars—just a very little flash until the door immediately closes again.  Then, the rest of the piece continues. It’s like you’re exposing the complete difference and incompatibility between materials, without them ever interacting. And that does seem to happen in a lot of my work. As to why that is, I couldn’t say and I’m not sure I’d want to say. 

So, do you intentionally try to instill this absence of interaction between different parts of your music?

No, it’s not intentional.  It’s the result of following an intuition and listening very carefully.  Artists obviously interact with their creative process to some extent. But on another level—not to be fatalistic about this—you don’t actually get to choose what it is that you were saying.  And part of that is because, well, obviously, you’re born into a particular culture. You have a particular form of subjectivity, a certain background. You’re going to be spontaneously interested in certain things and not interested in other things without always knowing why. You know, every composer has their three or four favorite instruments and nobody can tell you why that is. There are instruments I can’t stand and there are other instruments that crop up all the time in my pieces, and I absolutely have no idea why that is. There’s no reason for it, really, except for a sense of affinity.

Could you talk about how your pieces use patterns and unique sets of rules to create unique sonic environments?

Yeah, I wouldn’t call them rules. I would just say that there are patterns that emerge.  These patterns eventually will dissipate, transform into something else, or break off. Sometimes you do have very long-range patterns in my work. So, for example, I wrote a piece last year in 2019 called Sextet in two parts.  The first movement of that piece uses a single rhythmic pattern that lasts for twelve minutes, for the entire piece. Even though the first movement is made up of these panels of contrasting sound material, there is nevertheless a rhythmic process that ties the entire thing together from beginning to end.  Sometimes it’s extremely complicated how that actually functions in the piece. But, usually musical patterns are more local in nature; they don’t necessarily exist across the entire work. The reason for that is that they serve to temporarily orient your perception through their way of saying “pay attention to this for a while, and notice how it evolves.”

Could you talk about how your approach to writing poetry relates to your musical approach?  

Well, poetry and music are almost the same thing. They both have to do with rhythm. Certainly they both have to do with sound. They both have to do with with patterns and disruption of patterns. They both have to do with expectation and thwarting expectation.  And they both have to do with meaning also. But, the forms that these two things take on are obviously different. 

Poetry, in antique times, was performed aloud, and it was performed very rhythmically. The idea of sort of sitting down and reading a poem silently to yourself is a much more recent idea in broad historical terms.  So, poetry and music have an awful lot in common, and the two complement each other.

It’s always been extremely important for me to engage with both very deeply. And certainly, when I was a teenager, I was as involved with poetry, if not more than I was with music. And the two were really twin passions.

As it happens, I’m professionally known as a composer, but I’ve never stopped writing poetry. I’ve also published two books so far, and I’m working on a third.  I have many friends who are poets, and I read a lot of poetry and engage very deeply with that world. Very often, if I’ve been stuck with a particular compositional problem, I might turn to poetry and find an answer there, and vice versa.

Who are some poets you are most interested in?

Well, I just finished reading the collected poetry of Georg Trakl, an Austrian poet who was roughly contemporaneous with Wittgenstein, Webern and Freud–all of these people who were revolutionizing the Viennese world in the early 20th century.

Trakl wrote this incredibly unsettling, disturbing, but also weirdly beautiful expressionist poetry. Some of the images in Trakl are truly terrifying and haunting. It also has a strange quality of being completely shattered formerly; each line seems to be very separate from the others–the lines seem to push away from each other.  A Trakl poem doesn’t cohere into a straightforward narrative in your mind. It’s a very strange experience. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope or a prism or something like this, where there’s different lines are pushing away from each other and there’s all these incompatible images and trajectories within the same poem. So Trackball had a very pronounced influence on many composers, including Webern.  I appreciate his poetry very much for its compression, its strangeness, its expressive power, and its linguistic invention. So I’m reading him at the moment.

I’ve heard you mention that you’re interested in visual artists like Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko, with whom Morton Feldman was a colleague.  Do you exclusively associate with these abstract expressionist painters or do you aesthetically appreciate works by painters who happened to be considered abstract expressionist?  

I am responsive to a particular type of artistic attitude that you might describe as overarchingly ambitious and intolerant of anything that isn’t transcendental and completely involved.  

Painters like Bryce Marden, whose language seems to owe a lot to Barnett Newman in the sense that he has these relatively flat fields of color with very sort of apparently very simple formal structures in them.  Unlike Newman, I feel that Marden’s paintings are without any particular emotional charge. It’s very interesting to investigate the reasons for why that is. When I go to a museum and stand in front of a painting, the emotional effect is often quite overpowering. I find it very, very intense and often actually quite unsettling.  It’s very hard to know exactly why that is. There’s a very large Newman in Basel, which is about an hour from where I live, in Switzerland. It has a very strong pull. I’m very drawn to that.

And I can spend quite a long time looking at it. There’s this kind of mysterious alchemy in those works that I don’t know how to define. I don’t know if I would want to define them.  There are many painters who have attempted to do things along those lines. I suppose that someone like Ellsworth Kelly exemplifies this. He’s a minimalist who makes these shaped canvases usually using only one color.  They’re very beautiful, playful, and fun, but they don’t have that strange depth of resonance that I get from a Newman. So, I don’t know how to qualify that. It’s a mysterious thing.

Could you talk about what new projects you are currently working on? I read that you have some orchestral projects and a violin concerto coming out soon.  

Yeah, I’m working on a few things simultaneously because currently I’m working on the second volume of my piano pieces, pieces five through seven.  Those are taking an amazingly long time to write actually. I think it’s partly because I’m aiming to make each piece be quite separate from the others. So, I really have to invent a whole world in each piano piece. And that takes a while–it takes it takes a long time to invent a piano texture that is really unique, partly because there’s just so much repertoire. And it’s an instrument that gets used so much.

But anyway, I’m working on those piano pieces.  I’m also currently completely rewriting my violin concerto. It was originally written for violin plus 16 instruments. I wasn’t happy with the first version for a number of reasons.  I’m still writing it for orchestra, but it’s not just a reorchestration. The first two movements are comprised of largely the same material. The third movement is going to be it’s going to be based on the same ideas, but will be almost completely recomposed. That project is taking a while.  I reworked the first two movements from September to December, and I’m hoping I can get the third movement done by March. The new version of that piece will be premiered in Kiev, Ukraine next September.

There is also a performance planned for the new version of The Flash of the Instant, which is a big orchestra piece that I wrote a few years ago and also completely rewrote. It’s something that I’ve often done, writing my pieces twice. So, I’m hoping that as time goes on, I will have less of a need to do that so that I can be more preoccupied with new projects.  Yet, for one reason or another, I haven’t been satisfied with the first version of many pieces I’ve written thus far and have had to extensively rework the piece afterwards.

After those pieces are finished, I’ll be writing a new piece for Ensemble Proton Bern in Switzerland.  That’s a group that I’ve been working with for 10 years. They’re very good friends of mine and I’ll be writing a big work for them for their 10th anniversary.  I have projects planned for at least the next three years, which is very exciting. So, there’s no shortage of things to be done around here.

Interview by Thomas McGee