Julie Barwick on taking inspiration from Schoenberg

Julie Barwick

Composer Julie Barwick, photo by Betsy Kershner, © 2015.

We asked composer-in-residence Julie Barwick to tell us about the new piece we commissioned from her for our upcoming Transformations show. Writing for the same instrumentation as the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, Julie talks about how that piece influenced her work, as well as how she handled the piece’s eclectic instrumentation. Read more below!

You’re writing a piece that pairs with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no.1. Is your piece influenced by or connected to that piece in any way?

When I began to work on the piece, I started by listening to and studying Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. I especially wanted to understand how he dealt with this particular ensemble. What I took away the most was the frantic energy of the piece with each player busy on an intensely difficult part. I especially love the feeling of relief when we arrive at the beautiful slow fourth movement, after having experienced so much intense buildup. In a similar way, I imagine my piece as a breather from the more agitated energy in the Chamber Symphony.

The other inspiration I found in the Schoenberg was the structure of having multiple distinct sections or movements within one larger, continuous movement. Like the Chamber Symphony, my piece also has five distinct sections to be played mostly continuously. Some of the forms are reminiscent of the Schoenberg as well, such as the scherzo (third section), adagio (fourth), and recap (fifth). However, the connection is really just in name only, as I still wanted to develop my own forms that were organic to my own musical material.

Describe the main influences or themes in your piece.

Instead of looking to extramusical inspirations, I took a more abstract and somewhat classically-inspired approach, in that I looked to symphonic forms for ideas for the piece. I initially imagined writing my own chamber symphony, but as my forms started to morph away from the classical forms, I decided on the title Sinfonietta. As the title implies, this piece is a lighter take on the traditional symphonic forms, as well as shorter in length.

I also took a lot of influence from the instruments in the ensemble itself. There are a lot of soloistic moments from the winds especially, and the piece highlights the solo players versus the larger ensemble. I felt compelled, for instance, to acknowledge the fact that there are three clarinets in this ensemble, so that is how the piece begins.

What should people listen for in your piece?

I recommend listening for the different movements, and trying to imagine the connection between them. Some movements start where the previous one left off, while others begin more abruptly and have their own unique characters. The piece opens with an ascending scale-like gesture that permeates the entire work, either in harmony or in gesture. I encourage people to try to listen for these little connections, while also enjoying the rich variety of the instruments.

In your experience, how is it different writing for a large, mixed ensemble of 15 players versus, for example, a solo piece, or a small chamber piece with just a few players?

From small to large, each ensemble type presents its own challenges, and this ensemble is no exception. In fact, I felt that writing for this particular ensemble was extremely onerous at first. I would not have chosen this combination of instruments on my own, and often wished I could include a percussion or piano part. However, writing for this ensemble really forced me out of my comfort zone, in a good way, and led to some new ideas.

My biggest challenge was giving all 15 players a part that felt worthwhile, while also not overdoing it. I think Schoenberg really excelled at giving the players substantial parts, but this is also what makes his piece extremely difficult to perform. For me, it helped once I changed my thinking from “this is an orchestra of 1 player each” to “this is just a large chamber ensemble.” This gave me more clarity on how to shape the musical material I was creating.

When writing for large ensemble, some composers start with a musical idea and then orchestrate it to the instruments that they have, while other composers start with the individual instruments and work their way out, exploring the relationships between them to create the piece. Did you follow either of those patterns while writing this piece?

As I mentioned, this piece is an interplay between the solo players and the bigger ensemble so my composing method was a mixture of these two approaches. It really depended on the type of texture I was wanting to create. However, even with the ideas that I envisioned at the piano first, I always had at least a rough idea of the orchestration. The fun part was refining the ideas later and getting to be creative with the final orchestration. With the variety of instruments in this ensemble, I felt like a painter with a palette of endless colors. It was almost overwhelming at times, but also exciting to imagine.

Describe what your daily routine has been like on the days that you’re working on this piece.

I find the initial stages of composing to take the most amount of motivation and concentration, so it’s best for me to start first thing in the morning, even before breakfast (but not before coffee!). With so many ways to be distracted these days, I do go through a ritual of turning off all the various notifications around me. Then whenever I feel stuck, undecided, or tired, I take walks through our hilly neighborhood to clear my head. My best ideas have often come to me during these walks.

My other creative time of day is in the early evening before dinner, so if I’m not teaching that day, I’ll also try to work during that time.

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Get your tickets today for Transformations, where you’ll hear Julie’s new piece, the Schoenberg that inspired it, and the winning piece from our call for scores.