David Lipten on blurring the line between musical styles

blurred lines

Blurred Lines cc-by-nc Nupur Shah 2016, via Flickr

Elevate Ensemble’s season closer Transformations is only a month away! To give you a sneak peek at what’s in store, we interviewed call-for-scores winner David Lipten. In the discussion, he talks about his piece, his compositional process, and, of course, college football!

Why is the piece called Tongue & Groove?

Honestly, I had a difficult time coming up with a title for this work. But I had a eureka moment at a poetry reading by a friend of mine, Christine Poreba, when she recited a line from her poem “A Knob, A Post, A Scattering,” i.e., ”…like cats’ claws: things stick, tongue in groove.”

Plus, the oboe part is often articulated using tonguing (versus slurring) and there is a groove to this piece. It has nothing to do with flooring or siding for houses.

Is Tongue & Groove a typical example of your music, or is it an outlier in some sense?

Tongue & Groove is less typical of my overall output. But I think it’s part of a process of change that has been taking place in my music for a while now. In earlier music, my concerns were more cerebral, but increasingly, I have a desire to be more direct.

OK, then, given that desire to be more direct, what should listeners, especially those without a musical background, listen for when they hear your piece?

Just feel the groove and, when change comes, go with it (just going native, I guess).

What inspired you to write a piece that juxtaposes two different styles? Is this something you do often?

At the most basic level, juxtaposing different music is a means of creating variety, and it’s a technique many composers have turned to, across many historical periods. It can be traced back to the late baroque and the music of C.P.E. Bach, if not earlier. It’s also a prominent feature of Stravinsky’s music, where he drops music from other parts of the piece that is being presented into the current musical flow (e.g. Symphony of Wind Instruments).

In Tongue & Groove and other pieces of mine, I apply this concept to musical style. I’m working with the presumptions that we bring about a specific style—or, in other words, the common musical features that we associate with a style. Throughout the piece, those musical features are brought to the foreground, sometimes momentarily, sometimes as part of a larger, developmental idea. In that way, we hear the shift between styles.

This isn’t a process I use in all my pieces. But it is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Why did you pair oboe with strings? Does this combination bring out something musically that it might not if it were, say, just strings, or just winds?

The instrumentation came about through my negotiations with the commissioning entity, the New Score Chamber Orchestra. That said, I did also consider the fact that similar instrumentation has been used historically, in particular in the baroque concerto. Some of the music in my piece is meant to reference music of that time period.

Describe your daily routine while you’re working on a piece.

It depends on where I’m working. When I’m at home, I have a regular job, so I only get to compose infrequently. I try to make contact every day with whatever I’m working on. Sometimes that’s all I can do for long stretches, and the music definitely gets affected by this irregularity. To me these pieces end up feeling more modular, with shorter ideas that are pieced together, sort of like IKEA furniture.

IKEA Job interviewIKEA job interview, by Canary Pete

If I’m at an artist’s residency, which I’ve been lucky enough to attend a number of times, the music often has more of a narrative arc. I can only attribute this to having the time I need to indulge in the process for longer, uninterrupted periods. At residencies, I’m typically only away from the desk long enough to eat and socialize.

I’ve produced music I’m quite proud of in both settings, but the shape my creativity takes definitely changes depending on the daily circumstances.

Other than Tongue & Groove, what is one piece of yours that you think audiences should hear?

I’m very satsified with my choral work How To. The New York Virtuoso Singers released two of the five songs from How To on an album called Requiem for the Innocent, released by 4-Tay Records. You can hear the first of those here:

Where are you from originally? How long have you lived in Florida?

New York City, Queens. I’ve been in Florida for 12 years now. I lived in Michigan for some time before moving to Florida. Before living there, I was in Durham, North Carolina. New York, in many ways, is still home, though.

What’s one interesting fact about Tallahassee that most people elsewhere probably wouldn’t know?

It’s possible to live there and not care at all about college football. It’s not easy. It’s not necessarily pleasant. But it’s still possible.

When you’re not busy composing, what non-musical things do you do for fun?

What is this “fun” you speak of? I think I’ve heard of it…Oh, I like food. Food is good. Good food. Also, drink.

How did you become a composer?

I composed some as an undergraduate, but I was primarily a performer (piano). It took me a really long time to figure out that I actually wasn’t very good at performing. Rather than give up music, however, I went back to composition. This led to graduate school and life as a freelance composer. The rest, as they say, is history! But you know what they say about history…

Ha ha, well, speaking of history: what’s the earliest piece of yours that you would still want people to hear (i.e. your opus 1, or the first “non-student” piece)?

I’ve never really thought about this before! I’m often too busy trying to get performances, recordings, grants, commissions, etc. I don’t usually concern myself too much with my own past.

That said, if I were to pick a piece… it might be a piano trio called Prolepsis that I wrote while I was pursuing my doctorate at Duke. I think it was pretty effective, though too often awkward for the instrumentalists. It was a sort of high modernist adventure, but it had a lot of palpable surface rhythms that made it exciting, in spite of its thorny vocabulary.

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Get your tickets today for Transformations, where you’ll hear David’s exciting Tongue & Groove, in addition to Schoenberg’s landmark Chamber Symphony no.1 and a premiere by composer-in-residence Julie Barwick.