Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Of violence, “madness,” and “apokatastasis”: The musical and philosophical world of Jim Simmons

Of violence, “madness,” and “apokatastasis”:
The musical and philosophical world of Jim Simmons

Egemen Kesikli

The season opener of the Pendulum Series promises an exciting night of premieres by Brett
Madsen, Kurt Mehlenbacher, Jim Simmons, and the renowned Iranian composer Reza Vali, featuring Charles Wetherbee on solo violin. The program will also include a performance of a fairly recent piece by the illustrious American composer Jake Heggie (Fury of Light, 2009), featuring faculty Christina Jennings and Andrew Cooperstock.

One of the student composers, Mr. Jim Simmons, is thrilled to receive a world-class premiere performance of his recent work, entitled “Against the Spirit of Madness”, by the nationally recognized graduate chamber ensemble, Altius Quartet. I talked to Jim about this exciting opportunity, as well as his music, and his compositional process and influences.  

E: After reading your program notes, I decided that I wanted to start with the famous words of Leonard Bernstein: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." Is being "Against the Spirit of Madness" a similar perspective with this quasi-Gandhian response of Bernstein's, or is your piece more of a rebellion rather than an act of civil disobedience? How do you read Bernstein's words, and how do they apply to "Against the Spirit of Madness"?

J: To start out, I would say that I love what Bernstein says; but there are at least two kinds of non-violence that I’m acquainted with, one is—if I may get the phrase right—non-active and the other is active non-violence; or non-participative vs. participative non-violence. In the one, you are refraining from any activity at all, and for the other, you are undergoing an action which would be a civil disobedience. At least in Gandhi’s case, you’d be refraining from violence as some way to protect or defend yourself. Bernstein’s statement is more in the first category—he is saying, we are just going to keep doing what we do, and we will do it more beautifully, and we do believe in the power of music to have this potential to grab people and to lead their spirit into a different place. That there’s some sort of an enlightenment that occurs when one hears a piece of music played beautifully. That’s where he [Bernstein] wants it to be, and wants to leave it there---not to say that that is wrong or short-sided, because it most certainly is not.

So this piece… The word, reactionary, although I refrain from that term and I do not like to stigma of it, there was certainly a guttural reaction for some reason. I tend to be an apathetic person, but any time there’s a tsunami or an earthquake or a school-shooting or anything that happens as tragic, I feel it in my gut. But particularly in the Sandy Hook shooting, I guess mainly because there were so many defenseless children who died, it was a really odd combination of anger, frustration, and overwhelming sadness. And then over time, I began to feel compassion even for the shooter, who was this child who had a severe case of Asperger’s, and was not even in total control of himself. My heart broke for that human-brokenness, that even when we want to demonize the situation, is broken. So the piece colors outside of Bernstein’s words, by saying, “No, I want to offer ‘this’ to the world, I want it to be a gauntlet thrown-down before people who are in possession of their wits, and yet still are having violent intent.” Or I want it to be an embrace to hold the victims and survivors of these tragedies, both living and dead.

E: If you were to choose between vulnerability versus the presumed mere innocence in human nature, whereabouts would the piece stand? There are similar concepts indeed, but each has a very particular connotation, you see.

J: I actually try to refrain from the ‘problem of human nature,’ but I did want the piece to comment on the psychological retribution that violent act almost always is a reactionary act. So you see, a cycle of endless vendettas always occurs, which we see in Africa, in the Middle East, and all over the world. Within that cycle, however, there are cycles of grief and despair that are unavoidable and have their own half-life, and a person has to outlive and work through that, yet some people never are able to process through such tragedies. For instance, most of the homeless in our nation are veterans, they saw horrible things and they cannot get over that. It is a trite thing to say, “get over it,” but you simply cannot say that to someone who went through something horrible.

Nevertheless this piece offers that chance that for some of us, and hopefully for all of us, the hope is for all in. And I admit that I may seem naïve in a world that is as broken as our world is, but the sense is that all humanity is broken. Even Hitler, or Jeffrey Dahmer the Unabomber, all these people we call the evil incarnate… We are not doing ourselves a favor by demonizing them and thinking that we are not in the same category. Like when I heard that Sufjan Stevens’ song from Illinois’ John Wayne Gacy Jr.: He [Stevens] turns the lyric at the end and says “in my best behavior, I’m just like him!” We don’t own up to the fact of our own brokenness very often, and we are very quick to point it out in others.

E: Some might vastly disagree with your approach to the concept of “apokatastasis” as mentioned in your program notes, find it over-naive, and "accuse" you for justifying violence. I know that your thought process and intentions were way different than such perspective, but how would you respond to that? And how do you think we find that fine balance between accepting the horror and finding inner peace, and/or taking action and fighting the violence? 

J: One of the clues to this question is the title of the piece: “The Spiritof Madness. You see, the gauntlet is really not thrown down to human beings. It’s thrown down to this corrupt and ideological thing that gets into our bones and frameworks, and makes us feel like we have to retaliate. Again, the piece does not attempt or resolve the problem or war or the problem of justice. I believe that as long as we breathe on earth, there will be crazy people, there will be wars, and there will be punishment that is needed the punish criminals, and there will be retaliations and retributions. And I hate it! I hate it! So basically the thing that this piece does is to say, “I hate that.” It doesn’t say we shouldn’t have a punitive system, a court, or a prison system—it doesn’t say that Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t do bad things, it doesn’t say that at all, they were still maniacs, but that’s a part of the problem. They were not in possession of their full wit. And I think, part of that is that some people become morbidly fascinated with death. Violence in fact, as an artistic idea, drives most music. Most music finds its drama in dynamic contrast, tempo contrast, rhythmic contrast. It simply drives art. But the problem is that it’s so pervasive that there’s no way to utterly deal with it. I mean, I wouldn’t want to live in a society that was so heavily censored that we didn’t have the ability to express ourselves freely; but the set reality is that there are some people who are already half way in hinge. Luckily, music is protected in that sense since it is an aural experience to some degree, and we feel it in our soul. We may have some phantasmal images that might open up in our minds, but we are not being scarred with something that our eyes have seen and have been printed in the back of our retina. But even though—like I’ve said—I would never want to live in a heavily censored society, there’s this openness to really really really graphic violence, almost a kind of pornography that I see in a lot of horror and slasher movies that come out. I feel like it is a symptomatic of a societal dysfunction that is unable to deal with its own. And then we find a visual scapegoat. Not something like Slavoj Zizek’s comment in “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” which I don’t necessarily agree with the pointed departure from the book, but he makes a very great claim about the “culture of the real”. For instance when 9/11 occurred, for months afterward, there were this replaying of planes hitting the tower. This had a two-fold kind of response: one was it strangely displaced that experience into a kind of unreality. It made something that you can rewind. This uncontrollable experience became something we can somehow control. And then the sad fetishism that results, that even though we’re plumbing the depths of seeing this thing over and over again, is actually numbing us to the reality. It almost becomes a Hollywood show.

E: You know, Stockhausen called the 9/11 attacks as “the biggest work of art there has ever been.” I’ll quote his words directly from an interview: “Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. It is a crime, you know of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the concert’. That is obvious. And nobody had told them: ‘You could be killed in the process.’” So along with your thoughtful remarks on the culture of death, graphic violence that became an acceptable and somewhat learned norm, and the sad-fetishism, I think Stockhausen’s analogy is worth a mention; and is quite thought-provoking albeit controversial, I believe.  

J: The thing is that, in our culture, we play escapism with our aggressor. It’s such a strange paradox. So, I’d say, in short, this piece was also a kind of gauntlet to say we shouldn’t escape from these realities, we should, we must, face them.  

E: This quartet is a programmatic work. So I’m curious if you follow a mimetic approach in your programmatic music vs. try to hold more of a reactionary stance. And I know you don’t like the word “reactionary,” but do you follow a specific “storyline” as the composer Stephen Lias puts it, or is yours merely the thoughts of your own being on the sheet of music?

E: It is funny you mention that, because I actually use “Mimesis” in the subtitle of the second movement. But I’m thinking more in terms of a psycho-social mimesis. And the artistic approach may be seen, again, as naïve. The aggression theme is forte, it’s octatonic, it’s accented; it sort of slugs and thrashes. And then the grief theme is a very identifiable lament gesture that has this strange universal appeal, which is also quite fascinating since people know what that exactly means when they hear it. Even the elegy at the end has this understated balance between tension and resolve. In that way, one could say that there is a degree of mimesis occurring in the contours, but I think that would be it. For instance, the second movement, which uses the word “mimesis” in the subtitle, has an abstract nature of the first half of the work, which symbolizes shock and post-traumatic stress, and then there is a break in snap pizz moment in forte, and the return to the Vivaldian kind of language, which would signify an awareness of one’s own emotions. So yes, there is mimesis to a degree, but it is always important for me even when I’m writing music, that the music itself has its own logic.

E: I loved your examples from Vivaldi's Concerto Grosso in G minor and Chopin's Prelude in E minor, regarding how there's "a kind of agony that accompanies every change of harmony (...), yet after tragedy there comes for some unexpected visitant of hope and release, and new joy" [Retrieved from the Composer’s Program Notes]. I remember from the score, that towards the finale you had ongoing circle of fifths, which I assumed to be symbolizing the inner self and basic human nature, as I also briefly mentioned before. Would you like to share how your piece finds that release, albeit bittersweet?

J: Such good questions! So the whole piece is about transmutation. And those transmutations are also deeply, emotionally and spiritually significant. For example, the aggression theme, which is a whole step up and a minor third down, is the main idea of the first movement. Yet it is inverted in the third movement. There’s this sense that what once symbolized death, carnage, and morbidity have been turned on its head, and is symbolizing a climb towards healing and restoration. The circle of fifths idea, which is a lament, sort of a tearing of cloths in the first movement, so by the time it gets to the third movement, instead of having it go down, I have it go up. There’s that same sense that this is now the transition. We’re moving to a new place from where we were before. So the articulative things like tremolos, trills, staccati, pizzicati, all these things that kind of took on a rhetorical meaning in the first and second movement are rhetorically reversed in the third movement.

E: This piece has a variety of influences from very different eras and genres, as you mention in your program notes. And I can definitely hear Gorecki and Ligeti, even maybe some Vivaldi. I am curious if those influences come out in the compositional techniques you've used, such as the micropolyphony of Ligeti's that I could see in the first movement, or if you were actually going for a mélange of various styles in this piece, whether serving a specific purpose or not. 

J: My basic approach is a little more along the lines of Corigliano than Schnittke, I would say. So the goal is not to mix genres and styles in the way that is shocking and therefore is enlightening. It’s more like what technique, what approach can I employ to say what I need to say. When I was using a lot of micropolyphony in the first movement mostly, there’s a lot of building tension, violence, destruction, or just the anxiety. That’s basically expunged by third movement, where we get a very slow canon.

E: I love that you mentioned Corigliano actually, because the moment you mentioned him I immediately thought of the First Symphony. You know, how the Albeniz tango emerges out of this raging and loud music; or the tarantella in the second movement, which is a rather odd collage of a cheerful dance combined with really haunting colors, very intense character changes, unusual orchestration… Like, it’s there as a part of the symphony, and you’d think it’s a typical scherzo, but it’s there because it has a purpose, rather than merely following the traditional four-movement symphony form.

J: Exactly.

E: The ultimate question: Sibelius or Finale?

J: Finale.

E: Thank you so much for your time and very thoughtful answers, Jim. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you!

J: Likewise, and thank you!

Monday, September 15, 2014

We kick off the 2014 Fall Season on October 1st!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

2014 Awards

Congratulations to our 2014 composition award recipients!

Undergrad Award          Trevor Villwock
Graduate Award             Sara Corry

Graduate Spark Award   Hugh Lobel
Wind Ensemble Award   Kurt Mehlenbacher