FIVE QUESTIONS WITH JEFFREY RODEN

In a recent New York Times article, “The Secret Muse of the Downtown Scene? Turtles” (William Robin, Nov. 8, 2016), composer Meredith Monk said, in speaking of her roommate of thirty-eight years, a three-toed box turtle named Neutron, “New York is so fast, and everything is slow with her, so it just reminds you to slow down a little bit. I like the reminder of a more ancient time—or a timelessness.” To that end, Monk might be well advised to acquire a copy of Jeffrey Roden's Threads of a Prayer, Volume 1, which embodies in musical form many of the principles of which she speaks. At the very least, its material exudes a refreshingly out-of-time character, and it unfolds with patient deliberation, too, though Roden, as revealed in the interview below, legitimately takes issue with the idea of slowness as it pertains to his music, ostensibly because terms such as fast and slow have only comparative meaning.

Roden spent many years playing bass in live and studio contexts and also pursued a deep exploration of the instrument's possibilities on five solo bass recordings. But in recent years his focus has gravitated to composing, for want of a better description, chamber classical pieces of a distinctly ascetic kind, so much so that comparisons to Arvo Pärt and Morton Feldman have been proposed. A note at his site proves helpful in capturing the sincerity and humility of Roden's artistic approach: “I work with the intention of providing a specific experience for both myself and listener. The intention of the experience is material and spiritual, to involve the mind and soul of myself and the listener in a connection with ourselves, each other, and the place from which the music begins, from its own source and eventual existence. It is generally constructed of repetitions and silences relying on the ability of the musician to create a space from which they themselves are both absent and present. When this absence and presence are in balance, great beauty is created.” We recently spoke with him about the new recording and are grateful to Roden for sharing his thoughts with us.

1. On the back cover of Threads of a Prayer, Volume 1, a quote by you appears regarding your response to several concerts you attended of 20th-century string quartet music that reads in part, “And yet I kept thinking: Where is the breath here? And wouldn't it be great if they just stopped for a second?” Certainly the music featured on your new release is abundant in space between the notes. How do you account for the character of the music you're now composing? In other words, what led it to evolve into the kind of slow and contemplative form it possesses, at least insofar as it's presented on the recording?

The process of involving and utilizing silence and the effort to control and restrain tempo began with my work for the solo electric bass. I gradually came to the realization that the bass could only produce music of a particular kind of beauty when it was allowed to speak deliberately with an adequate amount of space and silence around the individual phrases. This space is what enabled the ear to track the complete thought of the phrase. While this notion does run counter to the usual presentation of the electric bass, I found it was the only means by which I could fully express the bass's capacity to be beautiful.

This awareness quite naturally translated into the pieces for the piano where I did not possess the technical ability to play with any complexity and consequently found myself creating pieces rooted in small phrases and thoughts. I also discovered that the ringing of the overtones on sustained notes or chords would provide a tempo to define the space and silence between the sections. When pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli and I first discussed this notion, he immediately understood and was familiar with the concept. Equally important was that I began to understand that silence, when configured in the same rhythmic manner as the surrounding musical material, functions as a natural transition. The silence also allows the ear to process what has preceded and to anticipate what is to follow it becomes a dialogue rather than a tapestry. I am not convinced that my work is, in fact, contemplative other than by comparison to other music. I find that it has its own dynamic and emotional range and is filled with contrast and variety of moods.

2. As described in the “Introductory Notes” section in the release booklet, your compositional process is exceptionally pure and untainted by extra-musical concerns; you state, for example, “I start and finish and continue to finish until the finishing is completed,” and emphasize the need to wholly exclude the nonessential; in general, what emerges is a humble deference on your part to the work in question. It seems to me that never has there been a greater need for music like yours than today when so many are suffering the crippling effects of hyper-acceleration and from an inability to give attention to anything for longer than a moment.

Is it possible that given such a state of affairs a certain kind of listener might be incapable of slowing down enough to engage with your music in a substantial way? Or is the opposite scenario more likely, that listeners so frazzled in their daily lives would embrace your music all the more fervently, given its replenishing quality? And, relatedly, how were you able to so successfully tune out the noise of the world when creating the pieces on Threads of a Prayer, Volume 1, given how ubiquitous and inundating that static is?

I think it best to start with the last part of the question. I suppose like many artists I fantasize about working in a serene and austere environment without any extraneous noise to jar or intrude upon my work practice. I could easily imagine having my studio doors open to the forest hearing the wind and leaves mingling with the sound of the piano. It really becomes quite a compelling vision except to paraphrase my spiritual master, “It is easy to be holy on the top of a mountain. The real question is can you maintain your holiness in society?” So I work with the windows open to the street, my wife bangs pots when cooking, the dog barks and sighs, and all this activity forces the work to exist in the real world and still possess a stillness and a focus.

It would seem that the work being created in a familiar sonic environment allows the work to feel relatable and removes some of the resulting strangeness from the music's qualities of silence and space. I work with the idea of creating music that provides a gateway to a path of awareness, among its many purposes. I would go so far as to say I would hope that this gateway would provide an awareness that the listener themselves invoke. It has been my experience that if the performer or composer has the correct and true focus, the listener will be supported and transported regardless of their expectation or familiarity with the music. I have played this music for many audiences in the most difficult of settings and found for the most part a great acceptance, understanding, and willingness to surrender. I recently performed for a great audience in Rotterdam at Vroom 42 who sat quietly with great attention to what was played and who responded quite favourably to music that was undoubtedly out of their usual listening realm.

3. Is there for you a seamless through-line from earlier releases such as the solo bass recording The Seeds of Happiness to Threads of a Prayer, Volume 1, or do you regard the new collection as a dramatic break from the ones preceding it, something like a new chapter? Put another way, was there a moment of epiphany that made you decide to abandon the path you were traveling on and choose another one?

I do not believe that there was a single moment where I thought it was time to move forward in a different direction. I came to a point where I could find nothing interesting or new to do with the bass and was unwilling to continue the same playing and writing without a purpose. I suppose had there been more opportunities for live performance it might have gone differently. I began to take the notion of moving forward as a composer more seriously after a performance of the piece for solo piano titled Twelve Prayers received a good review from Allan Kozinn in The New York Times. I felt the review was a sign that there was something of quality to this work and that for the moment at least I could set the bass on its stand and consider a transition to composer. In hindsight this all seems so obvious.

There was, however, a reluctance to begin in part due to a sense that the necessary knowledge would be impossible to acquire without an immense amount of preparatory study. I had read most of Morton Feldman's writing and the gist of his view was that orchestration more than composing was the gift that set apart a composer from his peers. Inexplicably this provided a confidence and further impetus to pursue composing. I had the good fortune to find the perfect mentor in the composer Ian Krouse. It was clear very quickly that I have always been a composer and only my desire to complete my work on the bass caused this idea of full time composing to be set aside. As I mentioned earlier, the music for the bass did clarify a great deal of what was to follow in the work I am doing now. It is my hope and deepest wish to return to the bass perhaps as soon as next year to find the new path for my own journey with the bass.

4. What was the experience of performing your music like for the musicians who play on Threads of a Prayer, Volume 1? I'm especially thinking of Sandro Ivo Bartoli, whose playing is featured alone on disc one. Did it take a while for him to adjust himself to the slow tempos and generous pauses, or was he able to adapt himself with no difficulty whatsoever?

This is a great question, and to answer I will mention that I wrote a good friend about the recordings and told them it did seem at times that Sandro had stolen my soul. On a dinner break Sandro clearly spelled out his thoughts when he said that normally on a premiere recording he practices; however, for my work he had to think about how he was going to play the music. Sandro's willingness to make the work as fine as possible can be shown quite clearly in the way that he handled the change in schedule from daytime to nighttime recordings. We had some issues with noises due to birds and had to reschedule the solo piano recordings. At like 2:00 in the morning Sandro delivered what Dirk Fischer and I thought was a great performance, and we were ready to wrap the session. Sandro, who was obviously tired, said to us that he felt there was a better take in him, and we were not sure what to do. Of course he played the piece once more with a spellbinding authority and precision. I still marvel at his ability to surrender to the music and in many ways make it his own. It is difficult, demanding music although it might not appear to be so, and everyone did their absolute best to make it live and feel as I hoped it would. As a last thought my recorded version of Twelve Prayers was a little over thirty-two minutes long and on the CD Sandro's is almost forty-five. I think that may reveal everything about what he brought to the music.

5. In the article he wrote for the release booklet, Tobias Fischer draws a parallel between you and figures such as Arvo Pärt and Morton Feldman (after hearing the beautiful, thirty-five-minute string quintet setting, Leaves, that closes the recording, I would probably add Gavin Bryars to the list). Yet while there's certainly an ascetic character to the music on the recording, how much of an affinity in your view does your music share with composers such as these?

Tobias also mentions the discussions he and his brother Dirk had regarding the music on the release and how to describe it, especially when they felt as if they had witnessed the ‘birth of a style' in seeing Threads of a Prayer, Volume 1 come to fruition. I would be tempted to venture ‘slowness' as a name for the style, yet I'm wondering if it's a label you might object to, perhaps because to your ears the music is just the music that it is, neither slow nor fast, soft nor loud.

Thank you for allowing me to be, at least in this conversation, in the company of those three great composers. What Feldman and Pärt gave me was permission to write music which gave voice to my inner dialog with God and the realization that it is irrelevant if there is or will be a place for me in the world of classical music. I have taken from these two great minds, which would seem to have no connection, a freedom and a sense that there is value in small gestures and silence.

My affinity is not musical as much as personal, emotional, and spiritual. I gave Tobias a very interesting book where Pärt answers questions about his work, and I discovered he spent eight years essentially writing single melodic lines until he felt ready to move forward. I completely understand this as when you deal in miniatures, there is no room for any error or the spell will be lost and the listener gone to a different place than you had intended.

As to a new style, perhaps so although if you were to query musicians about arrangement and orchestration, I am confident that you will find a general agreement on how frequently music is over-cluttered with ideas and textures. I have taken my cue from Hemingway, which is to know everything about a scene and write only what is necessary. I find that the style, if there is one, is a direct result of my wanting to take the listener somewhere. This might be a somewhere that even I am unaware of. This forces me to remove all reference and familiarity of rhythm, style, even the kind of musicianship that is engaging to keep you on a path. It is why sometimes the words contemplative or meditative are applied as a description.

As mentioned the work for me is neither, and I hope to evoke the kind of listening related more to the world constructed in our minds from great literary work than from music. I think slowness would describe an aspect although it is really only a comparison, not an actual label. I know labels are useful, and I have no objection to them; however, I cannot find it in me to find one for my own work. Although on second thought perhaps it could be labeled the “music from the other place.”

JEFFREY RODEN

November 2016