Martin Brody: A New 'Monster' of Modernism

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Wellesley Patch
Bill J. Braun
January 29, 2011

Wellesley College music faculty member Martin Brody will premiere his anticipated new work, "Touching Bottom," in tonight's concert entitled "Monsters of Modernism." The evening’s event commences a semester of performances from Wellesley College faculty and students in collaboration with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), which is in residence at the college for the 2010-2011 academic year.

Professor Brody, currently the Catherine Mills Davis Professor of Music at Wellesley College, has been part of the music department faculty since 1979, teaching composition, electronic music, and music theory. His work includes an array of projects dedicated to promoting contemporary music, and also extends into film and television. Professor Brody has been commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Council, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in 2000 for music composition.

The premiere of Brody's piece, to be performed by BMOP, is based on "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" - both the Shakespearean play and the Mendelssohn Overture. His nine-minute work follows the story of Bottom and Titania, but from the perspective of Bottom. Additionally, he is scheduled for a pre-concert lecture an hour prior to the evening's performances. Brody took the time to e-mail Wellesley Patch about his involvement with BMOP this semester, as well as the importance of music in his life.

Wellesley Patch: What was your entry point into the cannon of orchestral music as a whole, and with this project in particular? How are you approaching the tradition from a modern perspective?

Martin Brody: I began my musical career as a cellist, growing up in the Chicago area, and I got to play in a number of regional orchestras. So as a kid I had a chance to play a lot of canonic orchestral music, all of the Brahms Symphonies, the last few Mozart Symphonies, most of the Beethoven Symphonies, and lots more. You hear the orchestral repertory in a different way when you are sitting in the middle of the ensemble, and this was one of my most important musical experiences. Hearing "The Rite of Spring" as a teenager was a life-altering event, and I studied every bit of Stravinsky I could get my hands on after that. Shortly thereafter, the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern became focal points for me, and I founded and conducted a chamber orchestra as an undergrad at Amherst College, in part as a way to get to know more 20th century music. My approach to instrumental sonority is informed by too many things to mention, but Stravinsky and Berg are especially important; also Debussy and Messiaen and a lot of jazz… I think that Charles Mingus was a big influence on the BMOP piece.

WP: What has the experience of collaborating with the BMOP been like for you thus far? How does the interaction between the in-residence artists and the Wellesley students and faculty compare with your own previous collaborations?

MB: BMOP is a great organization - for me, one that is filled with many long-term friends. I have worked with many of them over the years, but not in this configuration. I have especially enjoyed writing a piece for such a diverse and colorful ensemble. The ensemble includes four strings, four woodwinds, four brass, two percussion, piano and harp, which produces a huge range of options for a composer. It is especially nice to write for multiple percussionists - the sound possibilities are vast. As for Wellesley and BMOP, having an ensemble devoted to contemporary composers means that our student composers get to work with one of the top groups in the country that is devoted to contemporary music.

WP: What role has music played in your life? How has that role guided you to your current professorship?

MB: Music has been the central activity of my life since I was a child. It's always been one of life's greatest pleasures; but also a source of revelation, a way of understanding the world. No matter how long you study music, it remains mysterious and complicated; even - maybe especially - if it seems instantly gratifying. As a teacher, I want to talk about questions of how music is shaped, but even more how its shapes and structures relate to other complex cultural and artistic phenomena.

WP: Where does the audience stand in relation to your performance(s)? Is there anything particular you hope to convey; any premeditated connection or outcome you intend that you'd like to see come to fruition?

MB: This question is interesting for this particular piece, because it is somewhat programmatic; that is, it refers to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," both the play and the Mendelssohn Overture. There are all sorts of narrative stuff written in - bottom waking up, braying, shaking himself off, and so forth. But I hope that the piece will reward attention whether or not the programmatic things come across. I just hope that it rewards close attention.

WP: You will be debuting your new piece, "Touching Bottom," at the Monsters of Modernism performance. What is your general approach when composing, - is it consistent, does it vary by piece, etc. - and how does the composition process of this piece compare to your work in other musical media you have been a part of, such as film scoring?

MB: One of my colleagues - Paul Lansky, a composer who has taught at Princeton for many years - once asked me when I was going to mix my "sacred" and "secular" music. I said "never" - which is pretty much true. The concert music always seems like a much more subtle way to express things. Film and TV music is always supporting someone else's message. It is very liberating and fun to write genre music, and it is a good opportunity to re-learn some basic skills of orchestration. But the open field of concert music composition is far more challenging.

WP: Where do you see music's place in contemporary life, and what do you believe is the value of a life with music?

MB: Both parts of this question are almost impossible to answer, but as for the second, I would say that my life has been enormously enriched by collaboration with wonderful performers. It takes an enormous amount of trust for a group of players to devote their time and talent to a piece that has never been played before. They have to believe that something valuable will result from the enormous effort that they have to make to realize the piece. And the composer has to believe that the performers will bring the score - which is a pretty abstract and in some ways indeterminate set of instructions - to life. It's a very close, very strong kind of relationship, and over the years it has meant the world to me.

"Monsters of Modernism" - Tonight, 8 p.m.; Houghton Chapel, Wellesley College.