Date November 28, 2016
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Brown musician, composer finds inspiration in unexpected spaces

For Assistant Professor of Music Eric Nathan, November brought the premiere of a new composition by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a Copland House residency award announcement.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —For three weeks in January 2017, Eric Nathan will live and work in the home that legendary composer Aaron Copland called “my hideaway, my solitude” in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. One of nine composers to win a 2016 Copland House residency award, the assistant professor of music at Brown University said he is looking forward to the opportunity to focus on writing without distraction in the former home of “the dean of American music.”

Other composers have described Copland House as a place where one can “sense the spirit of someone who has created so much and has been so influential to American music,” Nathan said. That makes the residency particularly promising for Nathan, for whom specific places have served as a creative spur and compositional tool.

This month, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered Nathan’s commissioned work, “the space of a door,” a composition inspired by his emotional experience upon first visiting the Providence Athenaeum, an independent library and cultural center dating to the 1830s, last December. A recent review of the performance described “the space of a door” as music that is “clean and shot through with rhythmic vitality” that “conjures images of a physical space” and “is filled with resonant harmonies that are left to hang in space.”

While it may seem counterintuitive that a library, a traditionally quiet space, could help to bring forth a composition to be played by the full BSO orchestra, Nathan said the Athenaeum, like other places with deep history, activated his imagination, senses and intellect.

“I think that when I walk into these large spaces, it is the change of atmosphere that I experience upon entering that is especially powerful to me,” Nathan said. “It instills in me a sense of awe and wonder. But these spaces capture more than just my imagination — they capture a sense of both the past and present. I see myself as part of a lineage of people who have experienced this same sensory experience.”

In a Boston Symphony Orchestra video interview, Nathan discusses his composition and his creative process. Listen to a recording of the Nov. 12 premiere of "the space of a door."

Nathan said that other composers have also spoken about the idea of “collective energy” as creative fuel. That phenomenon was at work in a 2013 visit to the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome, Nathan said, which inspired his “Why Old Places Matter,” a piece the Boston Symphony Chamber Players premiered in 2015.

“I felt I was experiencing something similar to what people in the year 400 were also experiencing when they were in that space,” Nathan said. “While the city around me is very different now, and there are cars driving around outside, inside the building, the way the light comes through the window, the way the sound acts in there with the reverberations, it was like a little time capsule from the past that I could be a part of.”

The compositions inspired by particular places, Nathan said, are not beholden to those sites or even meant to evoke them to the audience.

“For much of my work, it’s my goal for my music to stand strongly on its own, independent from what inspired it,” Nathan said. “My music often yields new meaning to me over time as I become further removed from my memories of the creative process.” He added that while he hopes his music’s emotional and intellectual connections transmit specific meaning when needed, the music can transcend those meanings “to become personal to each listener.”

As for his methodology, visiting old places is a tool he uses to delve deeper into his thoughts to generate ideas, Nathan said. While composing, Nathan often engages with visual art or sculpture or looks at photographs of performers. As a graduate student, looking at art helped him add abstraction and move away from more conventional notions of harmony and texture in composing. Another technique he uses, referring to images of musicians mid-performance, can help prompt “different ideas of what should come next,” he said, “and allow me to hear my music in different ways.”

Nathan’s receptivity — to the impact of visual art or literary works like the Samuel Beckett poem from which he drew the title “the space of a door” and to the pleasant surprises a performer’s interpretation of his notations can bring — is coupled with an emphasis on specificity and selectivity, something he demands of his composition students.

“When a composer is very specific about how they want a piece to sound, I think it helps them get a better idea of what they actually have in mind and how to communicate it,” Nathan said. “I found that when I started to be more specific in my notation, it made my music more expressive. I had to make more decisions, and each decision then impacts a further decision.”

Nathan asks his students to focus on clear notation in their pieces. Then, once a student has made all the key decisions with a composition, “what a teacher can really provide, as another human, is a different background, a different set of experiences and a different outlook,” he said. Students can then consider different choices and directions a piece might take.

Helping students see their works from a fresh angle is something Nathan tries to do for himself, he said.

“That’s why I use all these images and methods for being able to re-contextualize the building blocks of a piece — to see if I can break into a new mental set and way of thinking about the piece.”