From seed to sapling to mighty redwood: how does music take root and grow from the mind of a composer?Below, Matt Van Brink speaks to his favorite nature-inspired works, and to the process of “growing” a piece from concept to premiere and beyond. His beautiful, brief piece, “The Lower Leaves of Trees,” is included on SFCA’s March Program, Out of the Garden, Into the Woods: from Paradise to Scary. —Katie Bent, SFCA Alto
Your relationship with the Choral Artists began over ten years ago, when you were the 2006 winner of the New Voices Project. How has your approach to composition changed in that time?
I’d say one of the biggest differences is in the way I think about the premiere of a new piece. I used to put a lot of pressure on the first performance, but I’ve grown to relax and learn from it. I try to listen through the audience’s ears, to see how I respond to that first hearing.
I’d also say that going through workshops for musical theater, including the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, really hammered home the value of editing for me. Sometimes your first idea isn’t your best. Sometimes your third idea isn’t either! But having climbed over the top of that mountain, of realizing revision is possible, I’ve learned to think of the premiere as the continuation of a piece’s creation, and not its last step.
You’ve written several pieces for the Choral Artists at this point. Has your approach to writing for this particular ensemble changed at all?
I feel I’ve built up a lot of trust with the ensemble and with Magen. Whatever I write, the effect I’m seeking, I know that we want to make each other sound good and create something worthwhile for the audience.
It’s a little like actors reading lines. Good actors do think independently — they may ask to change a line every now and then — but they first try to make sense and art out of what’s on the page.
This concert is all about nature, both the reassuring and the frightening. How has the natural world inspired or influenced you as a composer?
You know it’s interesting, about half of my compositions touch on the natural world, especially with texts taken from outside the realm of poetry. I’m currently working on a piece for choir about trees, with a text from Gary Snyder. I have another, “White, Those That Stayed Still,” that tells a traditional Amazonian story about how the birds got their colors. And closer to home, I wrote “Among the Redwoods” for the Choral Artists when I was SFCA’s “Composer-Not-in-Residence” in 2012, with the text taken from Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.”
In general, I find a lot of inspiration, wonder, fascination, and awe in the natural world. It may be the closest thing to a religion that I have.
Do you have any favorite works by other composers on the subject of nature?
I love works that synthesize, that take disparate elements and make it their own language. Messiaen comes to mind – he was outrageously diligent about transcribing birdsong in his “Oiseaux exotiques,” but truly creative in setting it in his own harmonic language. He could merge the two worlds together, almost maniacally.
I also love “Become Ocean” by John Luther Adams. It’s so long, so slow; it hardly moves – it really embodies its subject. And finally, there’s a movie called “Rivers and Tides” about the work of Andy Goldsworthy, who created art with just natural materials, stone walls and twigs and leaves. Some of his works lasted just days; others months, but they all returned to nature in time. The music was composed and improvised by a Bay Area local, Fred Frith, who used a lot of the same natural materials as the original artist. It’s incredibly effective.
In March, the Choral Artists will once again perform “The Lower Leaves of Trees,” the work that first won you the New Voices Project and started this relationship. What can you tell us about the piece?
I actually wrote “The Lower Leaves” during my time as a graduate student at Boston University, studying with Lukas Foss. He’d give this text, a sort of “smushed together” version of two poems by the Japanese poet Sone no Yoshitada, as a compositional exercise to all his students, to see what we’d make of it. Years later, I still like what I wrote. For a short piece, it’s quite evocative.
“The Lower Leaves” was the first of many pieces that came back to this theme of trees, nature, peace, and silence. Nothing dramatic happens — the poem describes a misty, dewy mountain; the leaves are there at the beginning, and they’re still there at the end. To me, it brought to mind a wonderful stillness, a lake with no waves, just tiny ripples. The poem just paints a still, shimmering picture.
That said, there is tension. In the whole piece, there isn’t a single major or minor chord, and each part has shape and expression through the lines. You could say that each singer is like a single leaf — they don’t have a lot of movement individually, but the collective effect is shimmering and shifting, like leaves trembling in the breeze.
What should the audience listen for as they receive “The Lower Leaves of Trees”?
Have an image in mind, whether that’s the tree or a calm, quiet pond — listen for the words, and just enjoy the stillness.
Choral Music by Matt Van Brink
Matt Van Brink’s “Among the Redwoods” was written for San Francisco Choral Artists when he was our Composer-Not-in-Residence in 2012.