Gramilano: Mathematics is “the basis of sound” and sound itself “in its musical aspects… exhibits a remarkable array of number properties”, simply because nature itself “is amazingly mathematical” says Reginald Smith Brindle in The New Music. Are you ever conscious of using your mathematical training when you’re composing?
Julian Cochran: Mathematics is beautiful, any clear thought actually is beautiful. No-one thinks about the basis of sound, I think, when composing in the sense that a tennis player doesn’t think about the wind friction over the ball. When I wrote computer games some of the mathematics involved was sophisticated. The way mathematics is used in even my most abstract music is utterly trivial in comparison. The relationship between composing and mathematics is that of temperament rather than intellect. You are thinking abstractly and applying logic, you are constructing something that in both cases really doesn’t apply to the real world, you know, you can’t observe it with a microscope, and that perhaps requires a certain kind of temperament, perhaps a love of the most direct and elegant solutions of logic, common to both mathematics and composition. You certainly must be able to think clearly to be a composer because a lot of modelling of ideas have to be held within the mind at once.
G: What is your approach to composing: do you carefully map out a structure and then fill in the spaces, or do you ‘go with the flow’ and see where the inspiration takes you?
JC: Mapping a structure to fill, unless the work is conceived, would destroy a great deal of opportunity. Of course, if the work is conceived then that is entirely different – you might write the bass part first just to remind what is already formulated or simply as the first step during the process of rapidly writing the notation. But this is still within the act of leaving notation to the last step. I think the public often misunderstand composers as writing the music upon a page while conceiving – generally the notation is done in a rush as the last step after the work is already conceived.
The important thing is that the music is conceived completely without the limiting characteristic of moving to notation too early. It is very easy to compose something that appears to be wonderful by just manipulating symbols on the page and this could even have at lot of ingenuity — but is completely ineffective in what is actually communicated and inspiring to no-one. It is in this way that music is very different to other activities more focussed on syntax such as mathematics or computer programming. In fact the very best mathematicians often avoid syntax and conceive objects and relationships without syntax almost to completion before moving to the arduous task of representing the ideas with syntax.
G: Are you a composer who works from the piano or at a desk, and how do you think this influences the outcome?
JC: It might perhaps be something like 80% away from both the desk and the piano but with great attention to the music, then perhaps 15% at the piano and only 5% at the desk, which is actually at a laptop. The larger amount of time away from the piano is where the important work is done. This includes repeating the composition, singing it to yourself within the mind, not exactly, but with enough sense that the structure can be critiqued, the dynamics increased, and when returning to the piano later suddenly the music ideas are so much clearer. I treat the work ‘at the desk’, which I call the task of ‘notation’, as the very last task and try to keep the entire formulation of the music purely within my mind and avoiding working with syntax. I have learned by trial and error that the most fruitful approach is to leave notation to as late in the process as you can bear. The music should be highly refined within the mind, you should be deeply in love and desperate to start the notation before a single note is written.
G: American novelist John Barth wrote, “My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but what you want is passionate virtuosity.” Many of your pieces are technically challenging; when you are in the audience how does it feel when the virtuosity and passion come together, and how often does that happen?
JC: I will not add something technically impressive if it is not making a musical statement that is purposeful in relation to the whole. This can be highly dramatic and virtuosic, however the technique has no importance. It not merely secondary to the musical subject but rather something independent that I don’t even think about. I know that much of the audience can be spellbound by the pianist’s technique but I do not think in this way while composing nor listening to a performance. The strongest effect upon the listener is from the musical ideas themselves. Passion can be thought of as tastefully exaggerated or clarified expression of the musical subject. Virtuosity is just the necessary task to play the subject clearly. So these two things are still just in service to the music. Think of the music as corresponding to a carefully constructed fairy tale, the speaker corresponding to the pianist and the clarity of her voice corresponding to the pianist’s technique. It will be the ideas in the fairy tale that will greatly move the audience and provoke their imagination. When thinking about the fairy tale it is more obvious that main goal is the tale, not the voice.
G: What is the appeal of folk music which infuses some of your work?
JC: The short answer is that I started to fall in love with the Russian language, simply the sound of the language, and many things followed from that. But let’s get to the meaning of folk music. Folk music is appealing by definition. It is nothing other than popular music of the past that has survived by virtue of being appealing – the great time filter. Much of the popular music played today will not be heard in 100 years but some of it will and that will be what we call folk music in 2100. I can remember when I learned to play various scales aged about 11 and which was my favourite scale. It was the harmonic minor. I liked the end of the scale, the semi-tone, tone-and-a-half, semi-tone. This occurred to me just recently – but this is the basis of the Romanian Scale which is in most of my Mazurkas and some of the Romanian Dances.
Despite this I only actually heard a lot of 18th and 19th Century Eastern European folk music in my 20s and was greatly influenced by it. When Maelstrom was written I had not even performed Russian classical music, never mind Russian folk music. The first two of my five Romanian Dances were written from the accordion and I was so pleasantly surprised that they stood up against my other piano works after arranging them for piano. Writing classical music from the perspective of folk music places greater emphasis on melody, less emphasis on ideas that are not entirely clear to the audience. However the result must be valuable as art and thus more and more relationships are placed throughout the music as the work matures. Writing music in this way also encouraged me to think about providing melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and structural ingenuity each in isolation. They should each be interesting individually, so when combined there is an enormous interest.
G: When you are performing your own pieces do they still belong to you, or when the composition process is completed is it almost as though they were written by someone else?
JC: If I return to playing my first piano sonata which is 15 years old then it is definitely on the edge of sounding like someone else’s work. This is just a function of the familiarity with the work. When I hear recent works performed, the experience is not as unique as you might think because I also hear my own recordings, however hearing someone else’s imagination applied intelligently or sensitively to the work can bring so much pleasure. This is the diametric opposite of just playing the work correctly by following the notes.
G: You are known for improvisation. Do you do this in performance with pieces that have already been ‘fixed’ on the page?
JC: In concerts I concentrate on the written works. I can give a one and a half-hour concert that is one hundred percent a string of improvisations. Provided my concentration remain strong – and perhaps the help of a sports drink – they will sound to the audience as completed compositions. On the other hand I cannot perform often so I usually use the opportunity to record the newest works that have yet been recorded because my primary task is to write music – the improvisations provide great pleasure during the concert but then after this there is nothing. It is also important to perform certain works in public before I publish them because the concert hall forces you to think in a slightly different way. For example when I composed the short piano work Matryeshki around 1999 it was an even smaller piece for children and years later I prepared it for the concert hall. Suddenly it just appeared less convincing than when playing it in a small room to myself and so I extended it to something with greater weight.
Regarding improvising in concerts, or rather actually genuinely composing original subjects in front of the audience and not just playing familiar motifs, it might be a good idea to include at least one improvised section within any public concert that I give as a routine. The problem with this is that the audience is not conceiving the material so from their perspective there is not a big difference between hearing this material being produced in front of them and a work already composed, and the more brilliant the construction the more indistinguishable it is. To convince the audience that the subject is really being created in front of them, I would need to give 20 hour concerts over a series of days. This is still not out of the question.
Pianist Gil Sullivan will be performing all five of Julian Cochran’s Mazurkas during his upcoming concert series: