An interview with composer Reynold Tharp

Apr 5, 2018

We interviewed Reynold Tharp about his compositional attitudes, and about his new commission for Dinosaur Annex, Spring Snow. Reynold’s piece will be premiered on the April 14 concert in Somerville. – Hubert Ho

Much of your music is well-crafted, balancing the sonic with the visceral. What are some of your compositional influences?

The list of composers who’ve influenced me is very long, so rather than trying to run through it I’ll mention three larger categories.  I suppose the most evident one might be a strong French influence, not only in the stereotypical sense of color and atmosphere, but also in the tradition of restraint, economy, balance, and craftsmanship.  Second, an inordinate obsession with opera, which may account for any visceral characteristics, as well as a tendency to think of music as narrative.  Lastly, beyond specifically musical influences, a fascination with observing the natural world, which is often reflected in my titles.

To what does the title, Spring Snow, of your piece refer?

The title actually came from the weather as I was finishing the piece, but it seemed fitting for the music: a fleeting sense of evanescence evoked by the flickering lines, some of the delicate and unstable timbres towards the end of the piece, and a harmonic and melodic language ambiguously situated somewhere between tonality and something else.  Any allusion to Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name is probably coincidental.

In what way is this piece a continuation, or departure from, your previous work?

Many elements in this piece are quite typical of much of my music, such as the oscillating intervals in the middle register (often suggesting a kind of horizon that runs through a piece), a circular form in which beginnings and endings can imply a larger cycle, textures woven from heterophonic lines or from overlapping scales, and an interest in the transient and resonant qualities of sound.  In the past few years, I’ve also been concerned with clarity of form and a greater emphasis on melodic line.  While I began composing this piece with the intention of treating the two instruments as equal partners, the result is closer to a pocket-sized flute concerto with the cello taking the role of the orchestra. I suppose this inadvertent concertante approach is actually new in my music.

The piece is dedicated to composer Olly Wilson, who recently passed away. What does his legacy mean to you?

A message about Olly Wilson’s passing arrived right as I was putting the final touches on the piece, and in adding the date of completion at the end by the double bar, I noted the day’s sad news as if in a diary entry.   Although I was never a student of his, as a graduate student I knew him for many years, and he stands as a model of how one can successfully combine the roles of composer, scholar, mentor, and advocate.  Olly Wilson was also a distinguished alumnus of the University of Illinois, where I currently teach, and several times in the past few years we discussed inviting him to campus.  Unfortunately, this never worked out, and I’m reminded now of the urgent need to recognize and share the work of the composers of our time while we have the chance.

To check out some of his previous work, see his soundcloud page.

Attend Conversation between Ear and Tongue on Apr 14

Hear Reynold’s Spring Snow at Dinosaur Annex’s third concert of the season at Third Life Studio. Seating is limited, so be sure to reserve your tickets in advance!