Sinderbrand interview:

As a contemporary composer, what are the first principles you think you want in your music?

Primarily, I never want the audience to be bored. I hope they never come away saying, “Well, that was interesting.” I sincerely want the audience to enjoy their listening experience and to know that they will have felt a variety of emotions: happiness, melancholy, wonder, and most of all, melodic and rhythmic excitement.

What is your attitude toward twelve-tone music and atonality?

As a student, I was encouraged by my professors to experiment, using twelve-tone techniques and, as a result, it was easy to get what we called “atonal” relationships. So that was the norm for my class assignments, but when I wrote incidental music for college theatre productions, most of the output was similar to the folk-music of the day, tonal and melodic. The result was not much different from the non-jazz music written for TV and film scores today. Basically, I want my audience to like what they’ve heard.

So you would say that today you’re pretty much writing “tonal” music?

First of all we need to understand that it always helps to think in terms of a continuum.

Tonality can vary from the kinds of styles we find in Bach and his predecessors, later in Mozart and his contemporaries, all the way up to the chromaticism of Wagner, Berg, and early Schoenberg. But when we move into the twentieth century, we see new movements such as impressionism, new forms of dissonance that are added to traditional structures, polytonality, and the many different styles constantly introduced by someone like Stravinsky. There’s a new or neo- form of everything: neo-classicism, neo-impressionism, new scales other than major and minor, etc. In my own music, I am clearly working in a tonal standard, simply because that’s what I personally like to hear. The goal, however, is to bring in techniques that other composers have found acceptable and introduce them when appropriate, always doing so in a way that brings out my unique style. Hopefully when someone hears my music, they’ll recognize it as “my” style, in the same way that when I listen to a few bars of music, I can usually guess who wrote it, simply because composers’ styles are often unique to them.

You have said that you started out as an avant-garde composer. How does that integrate with your current tonal style?

As I said, when I was a student in college in the early 60’s, there was a strong desire among certain teachers to accept musical experimentation as the norm. Some examples of composers doing this were Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Cage, Babbitt, and many others. They created many new techniques and sounds and we were clearly encouraged to learn about these new movements. There was also subtle pressure on us to incorporate these trends in our compositions, partly because it is important for students to learn about what is happening in the contemporary scene. The Europeans were producing a great deal of avant-garde music and so we should also. If, on the other hand, students simply wrote like Beethoven or Mendelssohn, while it would show that they had mastered their harmony and counterpoint classes, it would not have encouraged originality, and that is usually considered to be the ultimate goal in all the arts, including painting, dance, theatre, etc. It was thought that there simply was no need to re-capture old techniques; the masters had already produced great works and it wasn’t likely that students would be able to do any better.

I’d like to point out that when my fellow students decided that they hated avant-garde techniques (and some even detested the chromaticism and forms of Wagner), they could always fall back on writing like Bartók, Shostakovich or Stravinsky because their music was not only tonal in its overall structure, but also they were regarded as some of the great contemporary composers. Imitating them could lead to acceptable pieces as well as better grades in composition courses.

When you write, you use a notation program that also produces realistic digital sound. How do you get the ideas into the computer?

Some composers sit at an instrument like a digital piano that is connected to a computer and input directly into the machine. I prefer to work on my music with pencil and music paper, crossing out and re-writing until I feel I have exactly what I want, and that way I’m not influenced by the computer. Then I can input material that I have already regarded as more or less final and use the program to refine what I wrote, restructure the forms and create the orchestration.

Why is the sound so much more realistic today than when computers produced music in the past?

Today’s programs no longer use electronic waveforms for notes. Instead, the computers use actual samples of instruments that have been played and recorded by excellent musicians. It’s their playing that we hear when the piece is played.

You’ve said that you genuinely prefer the digital sound representation of music to a live performance. And you’ve been criticized by people who feel that only a human performance can capture a true musical experience. Can you explain your feelings about digital?

First, it’s much harder for a contemporary composer to get a live performance today than it was in the past. And for a work for a full orchestra or any large group, one must be very well-known to get a work played and even if it is played, expecting repeat performances are not likely nor guaranteed. Live performances have a very limited audience and, only if a piece is recorded and put on the radio or YouTube, can it be by heard by a large audience. Second, much contemporary music doesn’t get the extra rehearsal time it should, and performances can suffer as a result. With digital, I can put the .wav or .mp3 file on the internet and not have to deal with the logistics of live performance. Also, remember that most popular music is usually heard in digital form, and that is acceptable to the average listener. While live performances in concerts and clubs are perhaps more exciting and desirable, there are far fewer listeners who are lucky enough to have a live experience.

The second movement of your piano concerto gives the impression that if Bach were alive today, he might write like that. And the third movement has a strong 30’s style jazz influence. Are these things planned in your mind, or do they just happen?

Several years ago, some composers who were proficient with the computer found that they could analyze the styles of earlier famous composers like Bach, Mozart, and Mahler and then have the computer create new pieces using the stored information in a database. One might even call it a form of artificial intelligence. At first I was fascinated by the concept, but after listening to the pieces produced by machine, I noticed that, although they were stylistically correct, something else was missing. All the pieces in a style sounded the same. It’s true that they were different compositions from each other, but they didn’t have that special feeling, perhaps emotional, perhaps intellectual, that distinguish the truly great composers. The computer programs, no matter how advanced, could not capture that special something that we associate with the best writing. So, I decided to use my own intuition, experience, and musicality when imitating a style. And, of course, it won’t sound exactly like the other composer’s style because it is, in fact, my own style.

What composers do you enjoy listening to?

Just about everyone including the masters: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart. But I am especially attracted to a very diverse group that includes Shostakovich, Puccini, Saint- Saëns, Respighi, Berlioz, Messiaen, Janaček, and Schumann.

What composers have influenced your music?

In addition to the regular classical repertoire, I spent a lot of time listening to composers from the early twentieth century, many of whom were breaking from tradition and developing their own individual styles. These include among others, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Hindemith, Scriabin, Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Honegger, and Varèse.

There are many entirely different influences: in addition to tonal, harmonic music, I listen to works where composers such as Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein worked to develop a strong American style and to English composers such as Britten, Walton, Elgar and Parry. And, of course, I am familiar with works using neo-classicism, polytonality, atonality and serial techniques. This includes composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Xenakis, Ligeti, Cage, Berio, Penderecki, and many others.

With whom did you study and how did they influence your composition?

As a student, I studied with many contemporary American composers including, David Diamond, Lukas Foss, Irving Fine, Aaron Copland, Alexei Haieff, and Harold Shapero. And as a pianist I worked with Joel Spiegelman and pianist and composer, Leo Smit. I also worked with Mauricio Kagel and Karlheinz Stockhausen and performed some of their works. I was fortunate in being able to study with these musicians and occasionally premiere some of their compositions.