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The Discipline of Inspiration: An Interview with Samuel Andreyev. Part Two

An interview with composer and educator Samuel Andreyev. Part two.

Samuel Andreyev by Luigi Gaggero

Samuel Andreyev is a composer, author, professor at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg and host of the Samuel Andreyev Podcast. His chamber, orchestral, vocal and solo works have been performed, recorded and broadcast throughout the world.

Andreyev is an inspiring example of an artist who uses a systematic approach to creation within which ideas evolve as musical objects, and, refined through several critical stages, reach completion by being nurtured by his disciplined practice. The nurturing of a creative space is a fundamental requirement for any artist to maintain creative output. An artist does, so output is king, and with output comes growth. After all, artistic progress is the lifeblood of art–but for that to happen, as Andreyev describes, you have to make a start. 

Originally interviewed for Trebuchet’s issue 11 on process, here is the final part of the extended transcript where Andreyev speaks in depth about his creative process. 

Continued from part one.

For myself, it’s extremely important that the pieces be heard and that they be accessible to everybody. And I’ve devoted a great deal of energy and effort over the years to making sure that that’s the case for every piece I write. 

What that means in practice, is I don’t consider a piece to be properly finished, until it’s been composed, published, performed and recorded—and hopefully performed multiple times. So the recordings are extremely crucial, because I have to acknowledge that, if I write these piano pieces, or any one of my compositions, there’s going to be far more places in the world where they’re not going to be played in places where they are going to be played. That’s just the reality of it. 

But I would like everybody to be able to hear them. So I accept that the recordings, while not the same type of experience, have to be valid. Also I wouldn’t say that one is better than the other. I happen to really like live performances, and they’re absolutely crucial. And I would have to very seriously reconsider my approach to composition if you were to tell me there’s never going to be any more concerts. But, they’re very different experiences and they can do different things. There’s an excitement and an immediacy to concerts that is difficult to get through recordings. But recordings offer the possibility of listening to something under basically ideal circumstances. Where you can listen really closely for details in a way that you might not always be able to do in a concert hall. So it’s two different types of listening.

So, do you use the recording studio in the same way as an electronic producer might or does your involvement end with the score? 

I’ve been closely involved in the production of all of my CDs, from start to finish. So besides composing the pieces, I’ve been involved in the rehearsal process for all of them, and attended all the recording sessions. And I’ve had a hand in doing the editing. But I don’t do the editing myself, because we have sound engineers that are far better than I am at it. 

But there’s a second part to this. There’s this perception that, of course, in pop music, you’re getting an artificial result, because they can do overdubbing. And that there is a liberal use of production techniques, delay, compression, reverb, chorus and all of these other things. Not to mention that with Pro Tools and other other tools of this sort you can do this micro editing down to the level of the millisecond. Basically, there is a perception that pop music is fundamentally a product of the studio (admitting that great performances still have to be captured). Whereas with a classical music recording, you just put a couple of microphones down, and the musicians do all the work. Which then is automatically translated by magic onto a CD. 

I have to tell you, that’s not true. Because classical CDs often involve all kinds of editing, and trickery. But we don’t talk about it as much, because it’s kind of a thing that we’re not supposed to talk about as it challenges the illusion that it was all the performance. There’s this fetishization of the idea that there has been very, very little editing involved and what you’re hearing is only what the musicians have done. The truth is that there might be thousands of edits in a classical recording as well as some very tricky mixing going on. There might be EQing, there might be compression, there might even be overdubbing! Although, it’s not really owned up to much.

The recording circumstances for classical music are also highly artificial. There’s a difference of degree, I would say in terms of how far you might go in that direction. For example, I’ve heard of instances where you have two takes of a piece. You want to do an edit between them, but the tempo isn’t exactly matched so you can put them in sync using time stretching. So I mean, that’s obviously not a natural thing to do. It’s maybe less obvious than using autotune on Justin Bieber’s voice but nevertheless there’s certainly all sorts of things that go on there. 

In terms of how involved I am in that process, I’m happy to delegate things because I have a busy enough life as it is. And realistically, I can’t do everything that’s involved in keeping all of this going but certainly, I have final approval over anything that goes out as a CD. And if there’s a major concern I have, artistically or otherwise, then, of course, I’ll intervene. But the other side of the coin is, I work with people where I have a high level of trust with them, and a mutual understanding of what it is we’re after. In those sorts of circumstances, when you trust the people you’re working with, generally speaking, the process is really smooth. They make suggestions, I make suggestions, and you trust them to bring their own artistry and musical sensitivity to the project.

If music is a language, can you describe how you think musically in linguistic terms? 

Well, music is only metaphorically language, it’s not actually a language. In order for a language to function, there needs to be a broadly universal system of signs that have an agreed upon meaning by everybody who shares that language. So in other words, the meaning in the language is an extrinsic thing. I’m probably getting into slightly difficult territory here, because I’m not a linguist, but let’s say that a lot of the meaning in a language is something that is agreed upon externally. Whereas in music, often a large part of the meaning of an individual work is located in the work itself. It’s not located externally. The composer has the job of creating a powerful enough context within the work itself that you can enter into this world and have some idea of what it’s like, what its criteria are and how you might want to react to that.

Music is a really ineffective medium for communicating precise messages, which is what languages do. 

What a language does is something precise and specific. If I want to say something to you I encode that message in the form of speech or text. And then because we share the same understanding of that language, the message can get passed back and forth. Then you can respond to it. You can’t do that in music. 

So, what we’re talking about in music is more like creating a context that is coherent enough to be able to carry meaning. In other words, on some level, the elements of the piece are clear and comprehensible and often not enough for you to perceive them. Even if you don’t necessarily understand what they are consciously, at least they will act upon your perception somehow. You want to have a sensation that what you’re hearing isn’t simply random noise but that it was made with some kind of intent and that it contains patterns on some level. 

In my solo piano pieces I put patterns into them, hoping that they are interesting and relevant enough for listeners to be able to identify them. In terms of what they all do, as a group, the piano pieces are unusual in my output in the sense that they were planned as an ongoing series of pieces with no definite ending point. In other words, I have no idea how many I’m going to end up writing and part of the idea behind them was that I wanted each of them to be different from all the others. Not in the sense that they seem like they’re all from different authors, because there’s definitely a kind of fingerprint of my own compositional approach that is imprinted upon all of those pieces. But I try to do something different in each one, I try to surprise myself and come up with something that I might not have done previously. That for me is what’s really interesting about doing something in a series on the basis of how far can I push this? How many new ideas can I come up with? How many different ways can I approach this same task of writing a solo piano piece? 

In terms of what might unite them? There’s a couple of things. My approach to the instrument has probably not changed fundamentally since I started the series, which was 10 years ago. So my piano writing tends to be contrapuntal, fairly lean, and in its textures fairly transparent. So what that means is, you can hear every note, and you can distinguish between the different lines in the piece. I’m not dealing with overly thick or virtuosic sonorities most of the time and that probably comes from a few things. It comes from the way my compositional technique has evolved, certainly comes from my interest in and obsession with melody. But it also comes from my longstanding engagement with Baroque music. 

Is there a connection between your solo pieces and your poetry? 

Where poetry has tended to fit into my practice is that the cost of running an experiment (and failing) in poetry is much lower than it is in composition. So if I want to run an experiment in the context of my compositional practice, and the experiment takes six months or more, and that experiment doesn’t work out, then there could be serious consequences for that. Whereas if I’m writing a poem, I can try out 300 ideas. And see which ones work, and which ones don’t and discard the ones that don’t work much more easily than I can in composition. 

The relationship to the material is somehow fundamentally different. It’s a hard thing for me to describe exactly. Maybe it’s partly a question of time. I’m a fairly slow composer, I mean, it takes me a large number of working hours to finish a piece. I mean, hundreds and hundreds of working hours. Whereas with a poem, it’s easier for me to be spontaneous. And to just try something, and work in a somewhat more gestural way, than I seem to be able to do with composition.

I want to point out here that I know people who are primarily poets, and I know how deep that engagement is. I can’t claim to be a poet in the sense that they are. Yes, I love poetry, and I have a long standing engagement with it. I’ve published several books and I read poetry voraciously. I have the greatest admiration for poets who are able to achieve important things in poetry. I also recognise that I’m not among them—I don’t have that level as a poet. But maybe the function of the poetry that I do write is that it’s a forum for me to try things out in a way that is less burdensome and less costly than would be the case in composition and then I can transfer the effects of that over into my practice as a composer. 

It’s as hard to write a good poem as it is to write a good piece of music. It’s just a question of one’s relationship to the medium perhaps. It’s not like I can just dash off a poem, but through that process, I’ve managed to integrate a lot of things that would have been harder for me to integrate as a composer. I’ll give you a quick example. One of the things I can do in poetry is I can write a large number of lines that have nothing to do with each other. 

This is something that’s been a part of my poetic practice for 10 years now. I write separate lines, separated by commas and they don’t have any organic connection to each other, they’re just lines that are interesting. Then four years later, I’ll go and look at a few hundred of these lines, and think about whether I can turn this into a poem. Can I use this material, find connections within it, find interesting surprises within that material and fashion that into a poem? So I can start with really, totally disparate, anti-organic material and sculpt it into something. 

The way I write music is totally diametrically opposed to that. So that helped me to maybe bring those two things into some kind of a balance that’s let’s say, a reactive and improvisational approach to work. And then, the more laborious process of planning that goes into some of my pieces.

It’s a cliche but some say that all forms of art are in some sense, a form of portraiture, what elements of portraiture are there, or self portraiture are there in your solo piano pieces, if any?

They’re certainly personal in the sense that nobody else can write the music I write, I’m the only person in the world who can write these pieces. So in that sense, they’re as personal as a fingerprint. But it’s not like opening up my diary and me sitting down and telling you a bunch of personal things about my life. My sense is that those sorts of personal things are actually, paradoxically, less personal. 

See, the events of your life, the passions and the forces that you’re subjected to, and your struggles and all of that, they’re partly a question of your own will, what you’ve tried to will into being. And it’s partly a matter of accident, contingencies and circumstances. The normal accidental nature of anybody’s life. Those are just things that happened by virtue of your having been born, but they’re not necessarily in and of themselves personal. When I put something into a piece, I have to choose to put it there. When I determine the format of what I’m going to write, I have to choose to do that. And doing so involves a total act of will. Because it’s hard to bring something into being. There are forces that conspired to prevent that from happening. This is the case with any artist, because it’s far harder to make something than it is to destroy something. So what you’re doing is, like Sisyphus, you’re struggling to push this boulder up the side of a mountain against all the odds. And that is where the artist gets to exercise their will. Those particular choices that go into that process are deeply personal. And they’re more personal than me telling you about my fleeting emotional states.

Read more in Trebuchet 11: Process

Featuring: Samuel Andreyev / Ed Atkins/ Nairy Baghramian / Phyllida Barlow / Peter Van Dyck / Oli Kellett / Tae Kim / Chris Levine / Gisela McDaniel / Paul Sietsema / Jeff Muhs


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