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In the Club with: Griffin Candey

For our fourth episode we are happy to welcome composer Griffin Candey!

Tell us about a recent musical experience that you particularly enjoyed.

Honestly, one of the small silver linings of this whole ordeal is how readily ensembles and musicians are sharing music, especially archival recordings. We already

live in a time with surreal access to materials and recordings, so it may be kind of an embarrassment of riches, but being able to see so much high quality art from home — streams from chamber musicians, orchestral premieres, ballet, musical theater, you name it — has been a real light in an otherwise dark time. Most recently, Lincoln Center streamed video of a 2016 Steve Reich concert (Double Sextet and Music for 18 Musicians, performed by Ensemble Signal) that was to-die-for — also, Andrew Bird has been doing a little live video every day of him playing through one of his songs (or just riffing!) and it’s been some daily medicine.

Who are some composers or ensembles you’ve been enjoying listening to lately?

Oh gosh, so many. I think the ensemble that I’ve been smitten with lately (as we dig into on the podcast!) has been the NOW Ensemble — really stellar combination of instruments, some supreme musicianship, and loads of collaborations with composers I respect so much (Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, David Little, et al.). Also just wrote a work and planning another for New Music Detroit, who are doing really, really stellar stuff in Detroit and SE Michigan. In terms of composers, the one whose works I just sort of fell into is Grażyna Bacewicz — an absolutely stellar early-to-mid century Polish composer and violinist whose string quartets and string concerti absolutely blow my mind. She was so spectacularly of her time and ahead of her time, somehow? Just other-worldly. They just bowl me over.

Is there a moment that got you hooked on contemporary music?

The moment that I always point to was actually performing in Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath as an undergraduate at Michigan State. Ricky — honestly, one of the nicest and most generous folks you could ever meet and an absolutely stunning composer — was in residency, and it was so instructive to be in the middle of a new work to see how the gears turn to make The Big Thing Go. Seeing that collaborative process, how personal and collegial and rich it was, was addicting. Having started to write some music myself, I also asked if he’d be willing to give me a lesson, and he very generously said yes — and while the piece we worked on is rotting away somewhere on my hard drive, some snippet that will thankfully never see the light of day, a lot of the encouragement he gave me in that lesson really pointed me in the direction that I’m on now.

What role would you like to see contemporary music play in our music community - or in the community at large?

A much larger role! (Heck!) This is really colored by how much I tend to work with theater music and text, but the main thing that always hits me on the head over and over and over again is how the classics can’t always speak to current issues. I mean, certainly, there are plenty of operas and songs and orchestral works and everything that do transcend generation or time period, and those often are the ones that endure for that exact reason, but there are some things that simply need a present voice and a present approach. Think of works like Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth (about female immigrant workers and the the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire) or Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shephard (about the murder of the young, gay student at the University of Wyoming in 1998). To remember both of these events, we could simply resort to one of the thousand pre-assembled Requiems — many of which are super gorgeous, of course — but how would that highlight those individuals, their voices, their experiences? As long as we’re both learning from and creating history, we’ll need a way to dissect it. Even more than that, and as long as we have socio-political problems that need resolution, we need a way to dissect those, too. Ned Rorem said, “Music is the sole art which evokes nostalgia for the future,” and I stand by that. We can envision things better in the works and worlds we create.

How does your background as a vocalist influence your work as a composer?

Probably in more ways than I realize! It certainly, in a silly and simple way, means that vocal music writing is my crutch — the joke is that, when someone contacts me to write a chamber piece or a large ensemble work, I tend to say, “Yes, absolutely – and what if we added a vocalist in there?” It’s my bread and butter (and my bread knife, and my cutting board and sink and cupboard). But, in a squishier, artier way, I think it certainly has an effect on the lines and melodies and textures of the non-vocal works — hard not to think in terms of breath, preparation, release, even when working with non-windy instruments. Can’t really turn that off upstairs, you know?

Do you define your work in any particular way in terms of genre or style? Are there any particular influences that have inspired your recent work?

Gosh, still don’t really have the words for this (although we’re all supposed to, right?). I always return to Impressionistic textures, American folk music, delicate and precise vocal writing; driving rhythms, manic energy, grooves. The most I can say is that I itch for music that makes you lean in — either because you don’t know what’s going to happen next, or because it’s abundantly clear what’s going to happen next and you’re just dying to get there, collectively with the folks around you, to arrive at this thing like cresting the hill on a big old roller coaster. (I actually intensely dislike roller coasters, but the simile stands.) That’s what I dig. I want there to be a place for you in it, I want you to feel like there’s space for you to explore, and that there’s some little nugget — some image — some thing that you can put in your pocket and take away, even if it’s just temporary.

Do you have a “regular” process for composing, or do you find that each piece is a totally different experience?

Yes and no! (Sorry, composer answer.) I do have a fairly predictable process for composing — I’m very much a “Get Up and Write and Then Be Done With It” type of composer. (As my sweet and perfect boy, Britten, said: “The old idea of a composer suddenly having a terrific idea and sitting up all night to write it is nonsense. Nighttime is for sleeping.” I also like sleeping.) I do a lot of pre-structuring and planning. My lovely mentor, Iain Bell, taught me very early the tremendous benefits of sitting down with a text and going through line-by-line to write in the dramatic context of each moment, notating where there is an emotional link between two parts of the text (that could be translated into a musical connection, etc.). I cannot tell you how instrumental that process is. I do similar things with non-texted works, but the planning is often just more ambiguous.

But, on top of all of that: certainly every piece requires its own experience and process. One of the enlightening things that Ricky told me in that lesson I took so many years ago was: “You never know what it’ll sound like until you write it, and you never know what you need until you need it.” You have your toolkit of sounds and techniques and experiences, and sometimes it takes you whanging on a nail with a wrench for three hours to say, “Oh, maybe I need a hammer.” That’s when you get a hammer, and then you have a hammer. That, dumbly, is how growth happens.

Outside of music, what are some other types of art and media that you particularly enjoy?

I try to dig into a bunch of other things — otherwise the music brain would just never hush up, would it? Just watched Little Women again during all of this and cried like an absolute ding-dong (as I did in theaters). Been listening to a whole bunch of Lianne LaHavas and D’Angelo lately (both perfect beings) — going down wormholes of K-pop choreography (so incredible!) — re-reading Camus’ The Plague, just for, you know, jollies. The Great British Baking Show has been our house’s calming and predictable pandemic rewatch of choice. Also, Bon Appétit test kitchen videos, forever and always.

Thanks for joining us, Griffin!

Griffin Candey is an American opera composer whose work performers praise for its "prosody that showcases both the words and the singers," its "intuitive rhythm," and its "lyricism and emotional depth." Recently named Composer-in-Residence at Cleveland Opera Theatre, Candey's energies are squarely aimed at the operatic stage and its changing place in the world of theater. His first opera,​ Sweets by Kate — described as "hilarious and moving" and "a meaningful and beautiful work of art" — was chosen for the 2017 lineup of Fort Worth Opera's Frontiers Festival and was listed by Operawire as One of the Ten Must-See Operas of the 2017 Summer Season. The chamber work, premiered in July 2015, continues to see productions at companies across the country, including at Boston University's 2017 Fringe Fest, at Marble City Opera (May 2016) and with NYC's OperaRox Productions at the historic Stonewall Inn (July 2017.) His latest commission, a Spanish-English adaptation of Lorca's ​The House of Bernarda Alba​, will premiere with Cleveland Opera Theater in January 2021. Outside of the opera stage, Candey's songs and chamber music have been performed and premiered at Tanglewood, Source Song Festival, the Oh My Ears Festival, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, and more.

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