Linda Catlin Smith: Among the Tarnished Stars

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Composer interviews / Uncategorized

Linda Catlin Smith wrote Among the Tarnished Stars in 1998 for Canadian ensemble The Burdocks. A 22-minute piece for piano, clarinet, violin and cello, it was first recorded on an album of her work, Memory Forms, in 2001. A recent second recording by Apartment House on the Another Timbre label pairs the work with Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940–41) – a classic work for the same group of instruments. I talked to Linda about the two recordings, the work itself, and the difficult question of “mood”.

Photo by Martin Weinhold


PK: Among the Tarnished Stars has two recordings now – how do they compare?

LCS: I think one of the wonderful things about being a composer is having different interpretations: the interpreters bring something to the music that you can’t expect, and they have their own aesthetic universe, their own preferences. I’m a little bit flexible: I think my music can take some different interpreting.

The two groups of players that recorded Among the Tarnished Stars are completely different. The recordings have different points of view on the piece, I would say. It’s almost like hanging a painting in a different room – you have the same elements, the painting is the same, but maybe the way the light hits it, or the way it’s positioned with other things, affects it a little bit. In the new recording, it’s slower, with less vibrato, and it has an aura to it that I think is very close to me. I’m very fond of the recordings that Simon [Reynell of Another Timbre] has been doing – they’re amazing, and I really appreciate the musicians that he works with. I never got to work with them in person – I haven’t even met some of them!

PK: Really!

LCS: Yes – Anton has been playing my music in all these recordings – never met him. We’ve only spoken by email. I can’t wait for the day when I actually get to meet some of these people…

And as for the older recording, I produced it – I didn’t have very many professional recordings at the time, which is why I made that CD. Those are musicians that I had been working with, and they brought their own aesthetic universe to it, and they had a unified approach to how they wanted it to sound. It’s a different experience with each group of performers.

I’m thinking more and more, as I work, about the art of interpretation, and collaboration. I’ve had the chance to work with musicians that really think deeply about contemporary music, and really treasure your work, really investigate how to play it – and that brings a chance for me to learn. That aspect of rehearsal is my favourite thing to do: to be in that moment where there’s some wondering going on about the work. Because I don’t know everything about it either.

PK: Are you someone who writes with particular performers in mind? Was this piece written specifically for the players of the Burdocks?

LCS: It was a commission from that group, so I knew who they were, and they were musicians I had worked with a bit before, so I did think about them… But often I don’t know the musicians I’m going to write for, so I just tend to write for the best musician I can imagine. It’s not wrapped up in anybody’s personality, per se. And I don’t write a highly virtuoso style of music; it’s not that it’s extraordinarily difficult or anything. Although I think there is something difficult about playing music that’s quite transparent.

PK: Oh, definitely. I remember I read Philip Thomas writing about playing Laurence Crane’s music – he said that he can’t even listen to his own recordings of it…

LCS: It’s very, very exposing, and as a musician you have to be willing to walk out on that tightrope – you have to become comfortable with the spareness and the fragility of just playing simple things. That is really hard – not everybody can do it. It also has to do with how you feel time.

PK: How did you feel about having Among the Tarnished Stars paired with Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time?

LCS: Well, I was kind of astonished by the idea. It would never have occurred to me. It is a piece that I have long loved – a very strange and wonderful work… Of course it’s a bit daunting to be placed next to this famous masterpiece. But the pieces are so different.

I love the performance of the Messiaen: I felt that that interpretation needed to happen; it gave us a slightly new way to hear it. And I feel that listening to the one after the other is… it’s not jarring, for some reason. Maybe that has to do with the insightful playing, or maybe the worlds aren’t so far apart? I don’t use any extended techniques – it’s melody and harmony…

PK: I thought they maybe showed a similar approach to harmony – Messiaen often just puts a chord down and sort of makes you listen to it; he really revels in that sonority. And you seem to do that as well in your piece.

LCS: Yeah, I mean, there’s nothing I like better. I love to have a chance to stay with something for a while. And of course his harmonies are beyond compare. He opened up a universe there.


PK: Your use of rhythm and metre is interesting too. When I first looked at the score of Among the Tarnished Stars, having already heard it, I was quite surprised. The rhythms and metres are notated so precisely – I hadn’t picked up that you were writing seven quavers in a 3/4 bar, for example, or that the metre was constantly shifting. It feels so free when you hear it that I didn’t know any of that was going on until I came to the score… Do you know what I mean?

LCS: I do. Something that I think about all the time is regular irregularity in my music – there’s kind of a pulse or ictus going on, but all the beats are not the same – some of them are slightly longer than others. Even waves that come into the shore are never exactly regular, even our breathing isn’t. So slight irregular pulses just make me feel more comfortable. Something that’s really regular starts to feel kind of nightmarish to me.

So in my music, often changing the metre will be a way of getting that suppleness. Or I’ll use regular metres but drape everything over the barlines all the time. I really don’t want it to be hyper-rhythmic, so even if it looks rhythmic on the page, it’s more drifty and soft – precise rhythms, but maybe molto legato, poco rubato… The rhythmic life tends to be slight; maybe I would just call it nuanced.

PK: So the complexity of the notation is a way of expressing the subtle variations you want?

LCS: Yes. It’s not about getting a precise seven in the time of six. Like in Chopin, in some of the Nocturnes, there are lines that are 11 in the time of whatever – they’re just about movement, a kind of movement that doesn’t fall into the grid. That’s the idea: I want it to have a little bit of a floating quality.

PK: There’s a moment at the end, with the spread chords in the piano – I think you just write in the score, “each one slightly different”.

LCS: That seems to work! I guess I like the idea that in nature, even when you have things that are the same, they’re never exactly the same, every leaf is not the same as every other leaf. I love that kind of slight variation, and I invite that musically sometimes. I’ve done it in different ways – sometimes I’ll use degrees of grace notes, like grace notes of the 8th or 16th or 32nd, to imply a difference of speed, or I’ll use different sizes of fermatas, to have a shorter or longer holding. And those things are still inexact.

Developing a photograph

PK: Was there a particular initial impetus with this piece, a particular idea or sonority you wanted to explore?

Photograph by Claire Harvie

LCS: Well, it’s always the instrumentation. It’s always, how do I deal with – well, in this piece, how to deal with the piano, as the other three instruments have more of a kinship. In this particular case the piano seemed to have a slightly separate voice a lot of the time. And what’s wonderful is the clarinet – in a way I treated it like it’s part of a string trio, yet there are places where the clarinet’s colour matters so much. The instrument has this amazing ability to ally itself with anybody, and I really was treasuring that in the piece.

PK: The initial chord in Among the Tarnished Stars seems to form the basis of a lot of what comes after – did you plan things out based on that initial material, or did it develop more intuitively?

LCS: Oh, it’s always intuitive, but, for me, if I can get the right harmonic atmosphere off the top, then I feel like I’ve stepped into the piece. I think that first chord was me finding my way into a place where I wanted to be. It has its own harmony, but it has also a little bit of ambiguity, enough that you can explore it. You can kind of go anywhere.

PK: Is your approach to structuring a piece quite intuitive, then?

LCS: To a degree. I’ve written about this in a few places, but I like to use the phrase “speculation”, in a sense that there’s a kind of wondering as I go. It is intuitive, it is kind of a searching, but after a point there’s always this sitting back, and asking all these serious formal questions – what kind of shape does the piece need, will it divide into sections…

In a way it’s like developing a photograph. I start with not knowing anything, and then some little bit starts to come into view, and over time I get to know more and more about what it should be. I would say it’s a rigorous process of reflection. The intuitive part is having a sense of what would work, but also what I don’tknow yet. I want to get myself into material I’ve never done before, and be very confused, as odd as that might sound – and spend a lot of time thinking about it and working it.

A lot of the time I’m asking how long should this go on. Really your choices are to stay the same or to make a change – so, how long do I keep something going, and how do I keep it going, is a pretty interesting question.

PK: You said somewhere else that one of the reasons you’re drawn towards slow music is that it lets people take everything in – is that right?

LCS: Yeah, as a listener I like to be able to hear everything, I like to be able to hear it all. I think that’s why I always liked slow movements more, because there’s room to hear everything. Plus I think slow music allows for more complex harmony, because complex harmony takes time; the ear needs a little time.

Abstract impressionism

PK: I was listening to your interview on the Notes on Notes podcast before your Proms performance, and you were talking about impressionism as a key influence. You used the phrase “abstract impressionism”… I’d love to hear you expand on that.

LCS: OK, so if we think about Debussy writing La mer: that’s the sea – but it never was really the sea; it was already abstract; it’s a metaphor. He’s not really painting a picture of the sea, it’s not really a story about the sea. But there are aspects of the image that are there in the sound.

With Nuages, the Proms piece, the title came just before I sent the piece out, but my initial working idea had to do with a kind of cloudy aspect of orchestral writing. I wanted a veiled, thin complexity of harmony – almost like a fog of harmony. So that was kind of an abstraction of an impression.

Abstraction for me has to do with an essence, finding an essential quality of something. And impressionism is a little bit of that too, right? But I guess where I think the marriage of those two is, is that I’m not really making a picture of clouds, it’s not really about clouds – it’s a double abstraction, a double impression, and clouds is not even the issue: it’s actually an abstract impression of an orchestra.

PK: An impression of an orchestra?

LCS: The orchestra is the material. The instruments are the material. It’s all really about that.

Nuages the title is my pointing at Debussy, my acknowledgement of the debt, because that music has meant so much to me. Plus I couldn’t use the English word because I already have a piece called Clouds… But that title felt right because it felt ethereal, shape-shifting. The metaphor was apt.

PK: How do you think your music has changed since you wrote Among the Tarnished Stars up to a recent piece like Nuages – is there a continuity of style?

LCS: Probably, but I think I’ve been working at getting thicker textures, even though it still feels transparent – that’s how I think about it, anyway – and getting more harmonically complex. It’s all a continuum, but there’s maybe of a deepening of each aspect. It’s kind of like thinking about the task of an oil painter, say, and how they get to finesse the materials over time; the sheer abilities they have of layering and colour. Those are things I’m still excited about and working on all the time. And I think the form of works is still something I find very mysterious. I don’t want things to be too obvious, I guess.

PK: Mysterious feels like quite a good description of your music overall, or maybe mystical.

LCS: I think that’s what I like in music – when I can’t quite understand it. I love hearing pieces that I just want to hear again, because they’re so unknowable. Music’s quite unknowable anyway, we think we know a piece that we’ve listened to hundreds of times and then we listen to it again and we go, Oh, I didn’t realize it did that. We have “impressions” – there’s the word again – of what the piece is like, but when we go back to it, it’s defied our memory.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Silver Cup, c1768


LCS: And I also like pieces with – we don’t really use this word much, maybe for good reason, but I like works that have a particular feeling or mood to them. There are so many emotions that we don’t even have words for, that we don’t know how to express any other way, but that music seems to carry. Maybe it’s like a state of being: a lot of pieces have a certain state of being that resonates with things I might be feeling or need to feel. I love that about music.

PK: It’s funny you’re talking about mood, because at the end of your programme note for Among the Tarnished Stars, you sort of back away from it – you say: “I am fascinated with small changes, subtle gradations and shadings. I like how these things contribute to something we might almost call ‘mood’.”

LCS: That’s funny, I’d forgotten that! I don’t remember writing that note, but I have been thinking for some time – obviously since then – that the word “mood” should not be banished from art. I’m very close to the still life paintings of Chardin – these dark backgrounds with these centrally lit objects; there’s a kind of atmosphere that’s really very moody. There is a quality of thought there that I equate with the idea of mood, of a certain mood, or different moods. But it’s hard to talk about, and I think people are a little squeamish about talking about feelings and mood…

PK: As you say, it’s so difficult to articulate what mood a piece of music articulates, but that doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t…

LCS: And it’ll probably be different for different people, but there might be some things that people can agree on. You know, if I listen to Webern’s Op. 21, I hear a certain quality of thought and mood and presence, that would be very different from maybe Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles: again this piece has a very clear state of being throughout – a remarkable piece, but a very different experience. It’s not just that pieces are different – it actually goes into us in a different way, and we respond differently, and we feel different thoughts around it.

PK: You used the word “aura” earlier. Is that a similar concept to mood, for you?

LCS: I mean, these are wonderful words because they’re so nebulous, right? There’s an indefinable quality there, but we sort of know what we mean. We know what we mean by standing in front of a sunset and what that feels like, and if it’s quiet, and if the colours are changing – we know what that feels like. Well, we can stand in front of a painting, in the same way, and get a certain kind of feeling; it’s different to look at a Rothko than to look at De Kooning. And I think music is like that too – we’re not looking at it, but we’re receiving it and perceiving it, and we can feel something about it, and each piece is different.

Find out more about Linda Catlin Smith on her website, and see Another Timbre for more about the recent album.

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