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Terry Plumeri: Singing Strings

By Published: March 31, 2008
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Tone Poems

AAJ: You studied under Antal Dorati (1906-1988), who was a student of B?la Bart?k (1881-1945). Both composers had programmatic aspects to their music which also mixed in folkloric elements. Your piece "Windflower," a beautiful tone poem, is dedicated to your mother and contains Scot-Irish components which were part of her background. When composing these types of pieces how much influence do you feel from what they had done in regards to structure of a piece?

TP: I am aware of formal structures that exist. But when I write, I am much more free in the sense that I use certain gestural elements of formal structure, but beyond that I enjoy allowing the piece to journey to its point of desire.

That requires sitting down with the musical characters themselves, and finding out who they are and what they are capable of. I never lock in the musical events in time until I research the musical characters, very much like writing a play.

You can't write a play or a screenplay about a character you know nothing about. But, if you really know the character and spend enough time researching the personality so that character begins to live in your head, then there is a natural flow to the journey you create. And it's the same way for music. Once I choose a musical personality that I like, I spend lots of time finding out what that character is capable of. I exercise the idea by singing it out loud or internally, at different paces, in different types of environments, with different types of harmonic backgrounds, until I thoroughly understand what this musical character is capable of. "Windflower," my tone poem for solo oboe and orchestra, is a very good example of an entire piece built out of one thematic idea which is displayed in the first few bars of the piece. Without researching the capabilities of this thematic personality, I would never have been able to create a convincing journey in time, of this character and all of its family members.

AAJ: Are your pieces generally recorded one way or another (studio versus live)? Do you have a preference?

TP: I prefer documenting my music in the studio. It gives you the opportunity to achieve accuracy with what you have written. Live performance doesn't always provide that.

Terry PlumeriAAJ: Is there any difference in what is done with a piece live as opposed to on a recording?

TP: Sure, if you are recording in a concert hall the sound is definitely going to be different, because there is natural ambience in a concert hall. In a studio recording you may have to add some artificial ambience but with the sense in mind that you know what the natural ambience sounds like. So the desired result is, the studio recording has a natural sound to it rather than that of an artificial sounding hall. .

The recordings with the Philharmonic were done in a studio in Moscow that's a very large room. It's almost like a concert hall in size. But still, the studio is not as ambient as it sounds on the recordings. Part of that is added ambience, but it's done from the point of view of my ears. I have hundreds of hours of being on concert hall stages, so I've got a good sense of what a hall sounds like. So whenever I adjust the additional ambience to what the natural room ambience is, it's done with a sense of trying to achieve a natural hall sound environment.

AAJ: Do you utilize any of today's technology such as computers or orchestrating programs?

TP: I do use computers in regard to the sound engineering process. But in relation to composition, I do not. I still very much enjoy pencil on paper. I have literally put thousands of musical symbols on paper since I began composing and feel very at home there.

AAJ: Which composers do you admire and what if any effect do they have on your music?

TP: I probably never wanted to write music until I heard B?la Bart?k's music. So I give Bart?k absolute credit with making me seriously want to write music. My most inspirational pieces were Bart?k's string quartets and the "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta." Being a string player, it opened an amazing door for me. I felt at home in that room and therefore wanted to take part in making more music in that environment.

The funny thing is, the more I got into composition, being an extension of Bart?k was so natural to me that I began to shy away from it. It was just too easy to be Bart?k. I heard his music so strongly in my head, it was almost like I had been Bart?k You can hear "Windflower" and "The Pride of Baltimore" and they may show some Bart?kian influences but they are quite a ways away from the sound of Bart?k's music.

In regard to the compositional process, Beethoven has been my greatest teacher. His music displays such a conscious clarity of the musical mind, it's impossible to pick up a piece of Beethoven's music and not learn something.

Some of my other strong influences include the music of Palestrina, Byrd, Haydn, Mozart, Berlioz, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Vaughan-Williams and of course, Johann Sebastian Bach.

AAJ: Are labels such as "American composer" now rendered completely superfluous? Do you give any thought or preference to any type of label?

TP:I really do not. I am not involved with that state of mind, because for's all music. I have experienced the incredible power that music has, in its ability to cross national boundaries. One of the elements I love so greatly is music's ability to unite humans rather than divide them.

You can't really say American Composer in a true sense, because all symphonic music has European origins. All of us, who write symphonic music in America, have been influenced by the European composers of the past. There is nothing wrong with being influenced by those European composers of the past. Many of them wrote beautiful music and have given great gifts of amazing sonic journeys, which never cease to provide inspiration and solid foundations for compositional thought of the future.

Terry Plumeri

For instance, one of my greatest influences was Dvorak, specifically his "New World Symphony." I played that piece in orchestra when I was sixteen years old. I still remember very well the night of playing that piece for the first time, in the University of South Florida community orchestra. It was also my first time playing in a symphony orchestra. The orchestra was probably playing out of tune like most community orchestras do and probably rhythmically ragged, but the experience of being in the middle of that music with everyone else and feeling the unified forward motion of all the musicians was an incredible experience for me. I came away from that rehearsal a changed individual. Up until that time I was very serious about being an architect. After that initial experience with orchestra, I immediately became dedicated to having a life with symphonic music. Today, I am deeply grateful for having been shown by Dvorak, the door to a world which has given me so much love and beauty.

AAJ: For someone just discovering your body of work, which is a piece you recommend they start with?

TP: I don't know, it is hard to say. "Windflower" is one of those pieces that seems to work for everyone. It is probably one of the most accessible pieces I have ever written, because it was written for my mother and I truly wanted her to enjoy it.

And there is Sarah Watkins, who plays so beautifully on that recording {"Windflower"}. She gives it that thing that every composer dreams of, and that is to have a soloist who takes their ideas and makes them sing with real beauty and elegance.

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