His music has been heard internationally at festivals and concerts in Peru, Syria, Spain, England, Germany, Holland and the United States. In this interview Nicholas Urie tells us of his many musical influences and his way of composing.
1.Your musical work ranges from classical to jazz. But the first listening to your music brings to mind also the European (post) avant-garde. What aspects of European music of the ‘900 influenced more your music? Vice versa, which influence on your work comes from the
Many of my deepest musical influences are 20th century European composers. As I’ve developed, my interests have shifted between various styles and aesthetic viewpoints but my interest in something that might be called modernism has been pretty consistent. Early in my writing life I was drawn the sensuality of Debussy and Ravel.
Both composers continue to be wellsprings for the way I deal with harmony. The way they allow harmony to melt from one sonority to another is something I try to capture in my own compositions, as well as the arrangements I write. I love the fluidity of their languages. As I’ve developed my linear voice, the music of Stravinsky (the neoclassical works especially) and Weill have been huge influences on me. These two composers have had a consistent and powerful hold over my artistic imagination. I draw from both of them on a daily basis. Texturally I am drawn to Dutilleux,Webern, Lutoslawski, among others. Their use of sonorities as kinds of structural pillars is something that has fascinated me for a long time. All this being said, it all goes back to Bach for me, which I know is a little cliché. I have also had a love affair for a long time now with renaissance sacred music.
My American influences are mostly jazz-related. An exception is Ives, who was big for me when I was in school. But I enjoy all of the standard major jazz artists like Miles and Coltrane, Mingus andShorter. The people who have left a mark on my writing are Steve Lacy, Frank Carlberg, Bob Brookmeyer, Vince Mendoza, Gil Evans, and Monk. I could go on and on, but I think this is a good smattering. For me the connection between Bach, Webern, and Monk feels obvious and
essential. My interests and career have me working in all kinds of different styles of music, classical, jazz, pop, what have you; but I consider myself a jazz musician with contemporary western art music sensibilities. Improvisation is hugely important to me. If I write too much music without an improviser I get a little itchy and have to write a big band chart. I love the conversation that begins when someone starts improvising over a structure I’ve created. I think it is thrilling, to say the least.
2. What do you value most in jazz music? Where do you find the contact point between jazz and symphonic music?
For me, all of these musics are the same, conceptually. The content I produce for any given ensemble in any given style is essentially, fundamentally the same. What changes is the surface of the music. Whether I am writing for a symphonic group, a big band, or some other kind of mixed ensemble, I approach them all with the same conceptual framework. What is the piece “about,” and how do I remove any superfluous information? When I say “about,” I don’t mean programmatic music; what it is about for me is the essential musical character that I am trying to convey. How can I strip it down to its most essential nature and leave only the marrow? Ives said something to the effect of “content over manner.” I agree.
3. Can you tell me which of your pieces are most important to your
I think my last record, My Garden, was an important song cycle for me to have written. I think that cycle was as perfect as I could have made it at that time. I feel like I was able to get down to the heart of the music and the text to express
something deeply personal. As far as arranging goes, I just finished a project arranging five Weill tunes for chamber orchestra and two classical singers that turned out really great. I think – as many artists do – that my last project was the best yet and the next one will be even better. I can’t say if any of it is important to anyone else, I just know that the learning and the end result’s connection to my original intention were what I wanted them to be in both of those projects.
4. The relationship between the composer and the interpreter is not easy. What should the qualities of a good performer be?
I don’t want to get myself in trouble here: I think it is the job of the composer to be as clear as possible, and write music that is playable. If a composer doesn’t clearly hear (internally) and notate his aesthetic vision, the composer is remiss in his duty. I see my students leave some of the major decisions to the players, either by accident or indifference. That lack of clarity and direction is where I see the most dissonance develop between composer and performer. If the composer has taken care of business, I think the performer’s job is made much easier and the relationship between the two is generally a happy one. Early on I took a lesson with Vince Mendoza who told me that my job was to be specific. That was the best advice I’ve ever received. My students will tell you I sound like a broken record on the subject. I am constantly asking, “Is that really what it is, or is that what was easiest?”
The performer’s job is to interpret the music as best as he or she can. I love to be surprised by a performer. I think my jazz sensibility allows me to get some distance between the idealized version of the music in my head and what is happening on the stage. What I try to do is work with performers who have a sympathetic artistic vision and the openness to travel somewhere new and unexpected with me. When that relationship is at its best, there is a kind of symbiosis that develops.
For instance, when I set text I hear Christine Correa in my head. She is an incredible stylist and has the technical range to sing my musical ideas. She is intensely open to new things and completely dedicated to the projects we’ve worked on together. I can’t imagine another voice singing my settings and as I write for her more, my ideas are transformed by the sound of her voice. It is an incredibly satisfying musical relationship for me that is always developing and
5. What do you think about the contemporary music scene? Are there musical movements or composers that you follow with interest?
I follow individual artists more than any particular scene. The whole notion of an overarching aesthetic scene isn’t something that exists anymore as far as I can tell. I go here and there and no one pays much mind to what I’m doing outside of their own involvement with me, and the same is true of my awareness of their work.