Interview with Avner Dorman

The composer discusses some of his works, among them a new encore piece for Hilary Hahn

Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman is yet another person that was a late-starter in the classically-trained world where everyone seemingly starts learning what they do at age 3 or 4, but he's now proven to us again, just as quite a few others have in our journeys here, that age is only a number in this game.

If you click on his website, you'll see that he already has a variety of great works and has been premiering even more as we speak, including one of the Hilary Hahn Encores (EDITOR'S NOTE: I couldn't not ask him about that, and believe it or not, he hasn't even heard this piece played yet. Huh?) and a narrated orchestral work titled Uzu and Muzu from Kakamaruzu premiering in March with the Stockton Symphony.
Avner had a few minutes to hang with me via Skype and discuss.

CM: Start from the top, how'd you become a musician/composer?

AD: I started studying cello when I was 9, and then I quit that and started piano at 12--Really late for most musicians, like, if you're going to be a pro, that's late! I think probably the biggest [thing] was that my dad didn't really want me to be a composer!

CM: Oh boy! [both laughing] Don't you love the parents when they try to crush your dreams any time you want to do something artistic?

AD: That was a good enough reason to really want to be a composer! But I was very drawn to music early on, even before I started learning an instrument, and even when I was studying piano or cello, I sort of never played what was on the page, I liked improvising and adding my own things. When I would do scales on the piano, I always played in 2 different keys at a time. I would change Beethoven and Mozart and what not--I think it was kind of ingrained in me that creating is the cool part, not playing someone else's ideas. It's fairly basic in my perception of the world that I like to contribute my own thoughts and not someone else's.

CM: When did your composing actually gel?

AD: I'm still waiting for it! [laughing] Just kidding! I started writing out pieces at probably 15, and then when I was in 12th grade, I was starting to perform my own music--I wrote my Prelude #1, which is on one of my Naxos CDs. I wrote it, and I started performing it, and that was like the first piece that people were like "Oh my God, you're like a composer, you're like the real thing!"--I think every composer has that moment where they're like "Okay, I managed to do it once! I can really do this! I'm not just dreaming!". That piece I played a lot. I was a senior in high school, and I played it at some upper-level, university-level places where there were composition students, and some of them came to me and said to me "I think I'm going to be depressed now for a month that a 17-year-old could write that!", so, that was sort of reassuring!

I remember I had one teacher, a counterpoint teacher I used to take private lessons from--he was a very good pianist, and one day he asked me for some pieces--the copies that he wanted to play, and I think that was also a very defining moment. A professional musician asked me for a copy of my music so he can learn it to play at his recitals.

CM: So, from that point on, you just knew because people wanted to get a piece of it, pretty much.

AD: Well, I'm thinking about it now, when I was a senior in high school, actually, I wrote this concerto for piano, violin, electric guitar and string orchestra, and the orchestra was a a string orchestra plus a drum set--That's essentially what I had in my high school. I put it together, and I recorded it. The composer-in-residence of the Hiafa Symphony came to our school, and he heard the recording from one of those magnetic tapes, and he commissioned a piece from me right away! I think that's probably the defining moment, a real orchestra commissions a piece after they hear something else, I was like "Okay, this can really happen!".

CM: Was it around the same time you wrote Concerto for Violin and a Rock Band?

AD: That was a few years later.

CM: Was that commissioned, or was that something you kind of wanted to try?

AD: I started writing it as a regular violin concerto, just for myself. And then I was taking composition lessons at the time with Amnon Wolman. He asked me what I was trying to do, and I said that I was trying to get the sound of a rock band here. And he was like "Why don't you just write for a rock band? Why are you trying to make the orchestra sound like a rock band? Why not just write for a rock band?". I was embarrassed and I didn't think about it, so I essentially said "Oh yeah, I'm thinking of doing a version like that!", and he was in charge of one of the new music ensembles in Israel, and he said "You know, if you write it, we'll play it at one of our concerts!".

CM: I've heard it, and it reminds me a bit of symphonic rock.

AD: It's close to some sort of '70's progressive rock, I think. I was a big Genesis fan growing up.

CM: How did the call from Hilary Hahn go down about the piece Memory Games?

AD: She essentially gave me a call one day and said 'Hi, this is Hilary Hahn, I'm a violinist...", and I was like, "Yeah, I know who you are!"!

CM: [laughing] That's so funny, she thinks there's people that have never heard of her in the classical music world!

AD: I'm like "Yeah! I've heard of you!", and she said "I want you to write a piece for me!", and I said "Sure!". That was it! She was like "I'm so happy you want to write a piece for me!", and I was "What did you think?! You're a great violinist, of course I'll write a piece for you!".

CM: Since neither one of us has had a chance to hear Hilary's rendition yet, is there any way you can describe what the piece sounds like?

AD: It's very fast, and it's like this jumpy groove. My copyist said it's like a Balkan samba. It has something Latin in the rhythm, but it's all sevens and elevens and what not. It's actually closer to Balkan music, which I'm very very fond of. What happens is the piano and the violin start together. And then they're going together, and then I think from the audience perspective it just seems like they're sort of drifting apart, but continuing to work with the same material. Technically it's very rigorous--It's kind of a formula that I created, how notes come in and sort of interfere with the patterns, but from an audience point of view, you hear them together, and it's very tight, and then they start veering away from each other, until it gets really crazy and intense. It's a very intense piece, I think!

CM: Wow, I can't wait to actually hear it!

AD: Me too! [Both laughing] One more thing about that piece--It's actually conceived in a way that she can play it not only with piano. The idea is that she can play it with clarinet, violin, whatever! As I was doing those versions, it started getting more complex than I thought, so I never finished them, but I will soon! The idea is that when she plays a concert with an orchestra, and if she has a friend in the orchestra, she can play it, and it's the same pattern repeating. She's moving around, but the "accompaniment" is fairly strict in the pattern. It's easy to learn it if you're a good musician. When she goes and plays with an orchestra, she can play an encore with one of the musicians in the orchestra, or 3 of the musicians in the orchestra, and she doesn't need the piano, so it's sort of a modular piece. I just have to finish that version for her because different instruments have different ranges, it gets a little tricky!

CM: What's great about chamber music for violin and piano is that even though there's so much repertoire where the violin is the only thing that matters in those pieces, people like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Ives, probably because those people were more pianistic, wrote pieces that were more like duets.

AD: Yeah, particularly it was more piano. Actually, if you look at the early stuff, it's only in the romantic period in the 19th century where the violin became sort of dominant in the violin-piano [repertoire]. I almost feel like when it's violin and piano or like a string quartet, I like to make it like a mass of sound together, like it's not even a duet, they're almost like this one thing, they sort of become like one entity as opposed to one being more important or even like a back and forth or something like that.

CM: Can we talk about Lost Souls, the Piano Concerto? I noticed a lot of references to Bach and other composers.

AD: The whole idea of the piece is that the piano concerto is dead. It's a 19th century format. it's not something of our time. The piece is sort of like a resurrection--The orchestra is doing a seance to resurrect the piano concerto. That's why it's called Lost Souls--Ghosts of piano concertos that come back to haunt the orchestra in this ceremony. And it actually starts without the pianist at the piano. And the lights are half-dim, they play the opening, the lights go down, and when the lights come up, the pianist appears. The pianist actually hides within the violin section, and sort of moves during the darkness, and then at the end the pianist disappears again when the lights go down. There's a whole theater there. All the quotes are from dead composers and are all just part of the dramatic idea of the piece.

CM: But people still write concertos...

AD: Oh yeah, of course! I'm not discounting other people's concertos, but I'm mostly thinking of romantic concertos. I started talking about this with Alon [Goldstein; pianist that Avner wrote it for]. Even though there's a lot of piano concertos written in the last 50 years, none of them are sticking as repertoire pieces, and we were talking about why that is--Some of them are very good. We got to the idea that maybe it's just a 19th century format that needs to come back from the grave.

CM: Boaz, the piece for soprano, harp and 2 pianos--Was that written for or about somebody in particular?

AD: That's about a brother I had that died as a baby before I was born. He died 2 months before I was born. My mom wrote these poems about the whole process of his illness and death. She wrote them chronologically from the day that he was born until the day of his death, and I took 5 of them and set them backwards. It starts over the grave, and ends with a baby being born, and how beautiful he was. It's a very personal piece and a very hard piece for me.

CM: It's a great idea to set the story backwards...

AD: Yeah, it's sort of the idea that the farther that you are removed from the moment of the tragedy, perhaps the more you remember the beginning rather than the end. It's a little bit like the way the mind protects itself. My mom really remembers very strongly how beautiful he was when he was born, so the mind doesn't want to remember how bad it was at the end. You could say it's a little like losing reality, but it's a way to protect oneself, remembering the moment that was good.

CM: Is there anything new of yours other than Hilary's piece that's coming out?

AD: I'm finishing now a huge, huge piece for narrator and orchestra, and 2 percussionists as well, Uzu and Muzu from Kakamaruzu, based on a beautiful Israeli children's story, and the premiere is in March with the Stockton Symphony. I know Gil [Shaham] is currently recording the 3rd Violin Sonata. And then I have a piece called Astrolatry that I wrote last year for the Alabama Symphony that they are premiering at Carnegie Hall in May.

DormanAvner.com Avner's official website

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