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GC Composer Whitney E. George Interviewed by Blue Tapes & X-Ray Records

The Graduate Center Music Program is pleased to share an interview featuring composition student Whitney E. George with Blue Tapes and X-Ray Records, published on November 18th, 2015. An excerpt from the interview is as follows:

Having recently chatted to William Basinski and Roomful of Teeth, we continue our series of interviews with our favourite modern classical composers with this illuminating dialogue featuring Whitney George!

This is how Whit’s bio runs:

Whitney George is a composer and conductor who specializes in the use of mixed media to blur the distinctions between concert performance, installation art, and theater. Utilizing a wide variety of material including literary texts, silent film, stock footage, and visual arts, George’s compositions are characterized by an immersive theatricality that thrives on collaboration in all phases of the creative process. Her affinity for the macabre, the fantastic, and the bizarre frequently gives rise to musical programs that evoke the traditions of phantasmagoria and melodrama, challenging musicians to experiment liberally with their stage personae, and audiences to widen the scope of their attention.  

Which actually sums her work up pretty nicely. We first got in touch with Whit a couple of years ago, when XXJFG sister project Blue Tapes launched as a crappy home-dubbed cassette label. Whit’s 5-tape box set (packaged neatly in a miniature treasure chest) is one of the most inspired, surreal and accomplished releases in the BT series so far. Only 30 of the box sets were made.

A prodigious composer and academic, Whit channels the lion’s share of her creativity through The Curiosity Cabinet – a hand-picked chamber orchestra who realise her interdisciplinary visions as intimate musical fables.

Is it fair to say that while music is the tools you use with which to articulate yourself as an artist, your inspiration instead largely comes from non-musical art? Your music doesn’t seem so much a response to the literature, painting and poetry you love, as another way of talking about them – just with chamber orchestra rather than words.

​It may sound strange, but I try and limit how much music I listen to, especially when I’m trying to write something new (which is just about always it seems). But yes, I’m dramatically influenced by other art forms. Even mundane, everyday life. Like taking the subway. It can be such a musical experience. Just listening to the train cross the tracks and different speeds produce different rhythms. When I was new to the city, I used to take midnight journeys on the subway from my apartment to anywhere an hour away. Just there and back—listening—and usually doing field recordings. I love reading poetry, which is a music all of its own. Even if I’m not setting text for a singer, I’ll sometimes call upon poems and poets for inspiration (like some movements of the Night, like velvet: in twelve letters series, which is essentially a narrative dialogue between Sylvia Plath and ​Ted Hughes, using their poetry as text). Painting, photography, and how I view color translates to orchestration and instrumentation. I’m not synthetic (I don’t see colors when I hear things), but ​​there are sounds that remind me of colors. I love working with larger ensembles because it give me an opportunity to create some very unique tone colors by combining instruments together. And film. Oh, how I love film. Specifically silent film, so the music can work on equal footing with the moving image. I saw one of Frans Zwatjes films randomly while trying to escape the rabbit-hole that is the internet, and I’m on the mission to rescore everything of his I can get my hands on…

Do you think of your pieces explicitly influenced by non-musical art as belonging to the tradition of ‘symphonic poems’ or ‘tone poems’? What are your own favourite works by other composers in this vein?

While I’m deeply indebted to the music written in the last 100 years, I may owe more to Romantic composers than contemporary ones. I love a good story—I think most people do, really. And the Romantics were all about story telling. Very longer-winded story-telling at times, but story-telling nonetheless. So, tone poems and symphonic poems are among my favorite genres from the western classical cannon. I deeply admire some of the classics, like Camille Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, or Paul Duaks’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or epic tales like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade​, or Holst’s The Planets Suite (which I distinctly remember really loving in high school), or Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. Of course there were programmatic works written in the 20th century, and continue to be of interest to composers (like myself) today. There are several outstanding tone poems/programmatic works to make note of that are more current, but perhaps, rather get lost in a list of “favorites” I might just say what I’ve been interested in tracing where the narrative has taken us. A lot of the early 20th century was about destroying and abstracting narratives, especially in early experimental film. And, for as interested as I am in having a narrative in my work, I’m also equally interested in destroying it—or abstracting it far enough where the audience has to be an active participant in making meaning to the shards of a story, in trying to make something whole again. So—pivotal works like Glass’s Einstein on the Beach , which purposefully abstract the narrative and meaning, are really important to shaping some of the concepts I’m interested in exploring in my own work.

For the complete interview, click here: http://www.20jazzfunkgreats.co.uk/wordpress/2015/11/in-order-to-have-good-you-must-have-evil-an-interview-with-whitney-george/

For more information about Blue Tapes and X-Ray Records, click here: http://bluetapes.co.uk/

For more information about Whitney, click here: http://www.whitneygeorge.com/

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