ICA Composer of the Month: October 2023 – SHULAMIT RAN
Interviewed by Thomas Piercy
Shulamit Ran’s music has been praised as “gloriously human”; “compelling not only for its white-hot emotional content but for its intelligence and compositional clarity”; and “she has written with the same sense of humanity found in Mozart’s most profound opera arias or Mahler’s searching symphonies.”
Shulamit began composing songs to Hebrew poetry at the age of seven in her native Israel. By nine she was studying composition and piano with some of Israel’s most noted musicians, and within several years was having her early works performed by professional musicians, as well as orchestras. She continued her studies in the U.S., on scholarships form the Mannes College of Music and the America Israel Cultural Foundation. Winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in music for her Symphony, she has been awarded most major honors given to composers in the U.S. Shulamit, who is now the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago Department of Music where she taught since 1973, lists her late colleague and friend Ralph Shapey, with whom she also studied in 1977, as an important mentor.
Her music has been performed worldwide by leading ensembles including the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Mendelssohn, Brentano, Pacifica, Juilliard, and Spektral Quartets, Chanticleer, and many others. Maestros Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Christoph Von Dohnanyi, Gustavo Dudamel, Zubin Mehta, Yehudi Menhuin, Gary Bertini, Marin Alsop, David Shalon, and others, have conducted her works. She served as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1990 and 1997, and with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1994-1997 where her residency culminated in the premiere of her first opera Between Two Worlds (the Dybbuk).
The recipient of five honorary degrees, she is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among her numerous residencies were those at the American Academy in Rome and in festivals such as the Tanglewood Music Center, the Aspen Institute, the Marlboro Festival, Yellow Barn, the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival, Wellesley Composers Conference, and many more. Her second opera Anne Frank, a full-scale opera on a libretto by Charles Kondek, was commissioned and premiered in March 2023 by the Indiana University Opera and Ballet Theater at the Jacob School of Music with Arthur Fagen, conductor, and Crystal Manich, stage director. https://www.presser.com/shulamit-ran
Featured Work – STREAM for Clarinet And String Quartet. Composed by Shulamit Ran (1949-). Premiered by Anthony McGill, clarinet, and Brentano String Quartet; Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA. Composed 2016. Duration 16 minutes. Published by Theodore Presser Company.
ICA: Tell us a bit about the featured composition.
SR: Stream was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society in celebration of its 30th season, and happily I was given a considerable degree of freedom in choosing the instrumental grouping as well as the performers who would premiere the work.
When clarinet virtuoso Anthony McGill’s name was floated in my early conversations with the PCMS along with that of the Brentano String Quartet (with whom I had previously collaborated), the combination of these five fantastic performers was simply too alluring to pass up. Indeed, their playing became an important source of inspiration for me in conceiving this work. Right from the start I knew that I would want this clarinet quintet to be a brilliant and exciting showcase for the clarinet, and a portrait of its multi-faceted personality. The string quartet functions in a variety of distinctive ways vis-à-vis the clarinet. It often propels the motion forward, but especially important is the manner in which it supports and envelops the clarinet by providing it with a kind of a “halo”. Typically in this work and atypically in terms of other string quartet music of mine the individual quartet instruments “pull out” single notes of the clarinet lines and sustain them as though they were rays of light, thus creating a merger of melody and harmony.
The resulting work is very much a clarinet tour-de-force, almost concerto-like in character, yet the totality of it has an immersive quality to it — with the string quartet, at least in parts, seemingly inseparable from the “body “ of the solo clarinet. Although “Stream” is played without a break, a loose three-movement structure with a broad fast-slow-fast progression can certainly be detected. And yet there are constant detours as well. The title “Stream” captures, I think, the element of flow that is central in this piece, suggesting also the idea of a journey through a somewhat unpredictable, at times surprising, terrain. “Stream of consciousness” is yet another concept that “played” in my mind as I was composing this work.
ICA: What other works have you written for clarinet?
SR: Works for clarinet.
For an Actor: Monologue for Clarinet
Three Scenes for Clarinet
Chamber works with significant clarinet parts:
Private Game for clarinet and cello
Apprehensions for voice, clarinet and piano
Concerto da Camera II for clarinet, string quartet and piano
The Show Goes On — Concerto for clarinet and orchestra
Birkat Haderekh –Blessing for the Road, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano
Birkat Haderekh — Blessing for the Road II (an adaptation of the above for clarinet, alto saxophone, violin, cello, piano and percussion)
Stream — clarinet quintet
Flight of the Brave Chicken: Ode to Nina, after “The Brave Chicken and the Ogre”, four panels by Nina Frenkel, for piccolo/flute and bass clarinet/clarinet
I might mention here that I rarely miss an opportunity to use the clarinet in my music. For example, in two larger ensemble works of mine Under the Sun’s Gaze and Fault Line I use not one but two clarinets. This includes having the clarinetist doubling on bass clarinet, an instrument I also love. In fact, in Under the Sun’s Gaze I have both clarinets doubling on bass clarinet, and in one of my own personal favorite stretches of that work there is a significant cadenza for two bass clarinets. My orchestral works all seem to have clarinets galore, and even Anne Frank, my recent large-scale opera, has important materials of a quasi-leitmotif character given to the clarinet.
ICA: Can you talk about your studies with Norman Dello Joio, Ralph Shapey, and Elliot Carter.
SR: First, I should explain that my studies with Norman Dello Joio and Ralph Shapey came at vastly different stages in my life. I was in my mid-teens and still very much at an early formative phase of my life (although I had already composed a fair amount of music, a good bit of it receiving performances) when, as an incoming student at the Mannes College of Music, I was assigned to study with Norman Dello Joio. Much to his credit Mr. Dello Joio understood that letting me develop by composing in my own way, without him trying to direct me stylistically, would be of the most benefit for me at that stage. In that sense he was very much like Paul Ben-Haim, the renowned Israeli composer who was my second composition teacher in Israel. Both allowed me to spread my wings, so to speak, encouraging me without attempting to influence my style. The fact of the matter was that both, in their distinctly different ways, were not part of the avant-garde winds that were sweeping the music world during the nineteen fifties and sixties. In some way you could even say that both were anti-modernist in the strict sense of what was regarded as “modernism” during those days. I’d say that this kind of freedom from any kind of musical dogma was exactly what I needed at the time.
What precipitated my decision more than a decade later to study for a period of time with Ralph Shapey was anything but the usual teacher-student model, as was its timing; because unlike my work with Norman Dello Joio, I took lessons from Ralph Shapey when I already was a faculty member at the University of Chicago — in other words a colleague of Shapey’s — having been appointed Assistant Professor in Composition in the fall of 1973. This in itself is an interesting story, because as luck would have it, a LP recording of my O The Chimneys, a setting of five poems by Nelly Sachs centering on the subject of the Holocaust, unbeknownst to me got into the hands of Ralph Shapey right at the time that the University of Chicago Department of Music was engaged in a search for a junior level composer. Although I was certainly aware of Shapey’s reputation, he and I had never met before, and I was not looking for a teaching position. Nonetheless, at Shapey’s urging I was invited for interviews at U Chicago and when offered the position I accepted it and moved to Chicago from New York City. Ralph Shapey and I quickly became not just colleagues but lifelong friends.
As a young faculty member, I often overheard our mutual students talk about a special course with which each of them had begun their compositional studies with Shapey. The more I heard, the more curious and intrigued I became. He referred to it as “my basic course”. This was a series of ingeniously structured compositional exercises that were quite rigorous, and really brought home the notion of doing more with less, pushing one’s imagination to be more inventive even within a closely circumscribed set of rules. And so one day, at the end of the school year (I think it was in the summer of 1976) I said to Shapey — Ralph, will you teach me as well? He neatly fell on the floor with astonishment, but of course agreed, saying almost apologetically “but you know, you will have to start by taking my basic course first, because that’s what I do…” I explained that that was absolutely my intent. And so we went through the basic course, which became progressively more demanding with each passing week but was also eye and ear-opening and a lot of fun. For a period of time later on I would meet with Ralph to show him music I was composing and was always struck by his wonderfully astute comments. He really was a great teacher and mentor!
You are asking me about my studies with Elliot Carter, but he is not someone I ever studied with. I certainly “studied with his music,” as did generations of composers, and I might cite one specific instance: as a student at the Mannes College of Music I took a chamber music class with the wonderful American cellist Madeline Foley, and she proposed to me one day that I learn Carter’s early Sonata for Cello and Piano and that we play through it together. What I discovered was a very strong work, one that certainly left an indelible impression. Decades later I had occasion to meet Mr. Carter in person, first in my role as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra where he was a frequent guest, and later when I was visiting faculty at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2008 just as Carter’s 100th birthday was being celebrated in grand style. And so at both these junctures I had the honor and great pleasure of interacting with him a bit.
ICA: As a performer, how much do you think your piano studies and playing influenced your composing?
SR: There is no question that my composing was much affected by my background as pianist, mostly because it allowed me to become intimately familiar with a lot of very great music. There is nothing like having music physically go through you, where you become the carrier, the vessel so to speak, through which the music reverberates.
But in addition, it gave me a first-hand awareness not only of how music is actually learned, but also a deeper understanding that assimilating the notes and the rhythms is only one step on the road to bringing the music to life.
Many of the compositions I have created can be challenging to perform. And while it’s not the kind of music that can just be read through, I have had the good fortune of receiving many exceptional performances of even the most demanding of my works. Composing is, by definition, a solitary act. You sit with your preferred tools — I still compose with paper and pencil — and using your imagination you create things made of sound and time, putting down on paper their symbolic representation through notation. For me there is the greatest exhilaration when the time comes to work with performers on creating true meaning out of those dots on paper. I find it hugely rewarding to see performers immersing themselves in my music, willing to expand the effort, time, and energy necessary to not just learn it but also “own it”. And there is nothing more special for me as composer than feeling that there is a genuine human connection that happens in the process. I see performers as my true partners, my closest, invaluable friends, and allies in this endeavor. And I hope that through the music I compose they too can sense my deep respect for their art and craft as performers, and their essential role in making it all come alive. And that is very much connected to my own past experience as a performer.
ICA: How would you describe your music? I know! An unanswerable question for many. How have others described your music. Do you agree with these descriptions? Do you find descriptions helpful or pigeon-holing exercises?
SR: I think that when someone says “describe your music”, what they often mean is — what “ilk”, or “box”, can we fit the music into; what “ism” describes it. The truth is that even if I could answer this question, which I can’t, it would be a very partial and not particularly helpful reply. Such “isms” say next to nothing about what it is that makes music worthy of the time it takes to listen to
- There are certain ideals that I hold dear, and they have little to do with the language of the music. Notice that I say “language”, not “style”, because my music employs a variety of languages at different times. You are asking how others have described my music, and I can tell you that something that comes up repeatedly is that people will say that I have a “voice” that they recognize as mine. And that pleases me greatly, even though of course it is not something I think about consciously.
What is important for me is that my music engage its listener, and I want that engagement to be first of all at the emotional level, but in every other way, too; the music should speak to the heart and to the mind. I want you, as listener, to feel even in a first hearing that there is something compelling here that invites you to come back to; that this is a journey you want to take with me. And it is always my hope that the music has a depth, a multi-dimensionality, that allows for repeat encounters to reveal more, making the experience fuller, richer. There should be that spark that lights up the music right the way, but I want further listenings to open up more doors. And I want my music to have an urgency, a sense of necessity to it. After all, music is an art form that unfolds in time, and for the duration of a composition the listener is my captive, and it is my responsibility to make the time spent listening worthwhile and engrossing. There is that fine line I am forever negotiating where I want you as listener to be surprised by the next move, and yet feel that it is, somehow, “right”. I want what you just heard to seem inevitable, but never predictable. And I aim to create music that feels like a living organism, where every move springs from what just came before, even where there is great contrast, and an unexpected turn of events.
ICA: Do you approach writing for clarinet differently than writing for other instruments?
SR: The clarinet is an instrument I have always had a special attachment to, and have used from an early point in my life. I love its incredible versatility, the range of color and emotion it is capable of, its technical prowess, its capacity for the greatest contract from screaming to whispering, from wide leaps to sustaining the longest tones. In some way it also reminds me of the human voice. In my Apprehensions for voice, clarinet, and piano of which I think as a type of monodrama, I decided to use the clarinet because I wanted to have a kind of alter ego to the vocal part. And then, of course, perhaps more so than any other instrument, the clarinet can also blend seamlessly with other instrumental and vocal sound as needed.
I think of any instrument I write for, and the clarinet is no different in that regard, as having a “soul” which I wish to explore. And for me the soul of the clarinet is especially multi-faceted and ripe with possibilities, which I have aimed to bring out in my various compositions.
I recently had a flash-back to what was probably one of my earliest experiences listening to the clarinet and falling in love with it when Marin Alsop programmed my Chicago Skyline, a fanfare for brass and percussion, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, on the same concert with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. And right at the beginning of the symphony you have the clarinet intoning this slow, gorgeous, theme in the lowest part of the instrument’s range, the chalumeau register. I was suddenly taken back many decades ago when I heard the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, in Tel Aviv, play this symphony. The IPO at the time had a great first clarinet, Yona Etlinger, who had a deep, most beautiful sound, and he was playing just then. And I got hooked right then and there.
ICA: Do you have advice to clarinetists about “how” to play your music?
SR: Given its huge range of possibilities, I would advise a clarinetist to learn my music well — that’s always a given — really do your best to master its notes and rhythms, dynamics, articulation, and then speak through it. A salient feature of many of my works where the clarinet has a prominent role is that you literally can approach it as though you are an actor. Nowhere more so than in the first, and probably most demanding of my three solo clarinet works, For an Actor: Monologue for Clarinet.
And a general comment about my music that applies to anyone playing it is that for all the carefully notated pitches and rhythms, dynamics, articulation marks, metronome markings and more, the ultimate goal is that once you learn and assimilate these, the score becomes like a blue print, something you learn in order to take off from there. This, as I see it, is true of so much of what we think of as the standard repertoire. You learn the score quite meticulously, just so that you can free yourself from it. This may sound like a paradox, but I think it is at the heart of the most compelling performances.
No one wants to listen to music that is played metronomically. It needs to breath, to sing, to move. When musicians come to play for me, this is often the first thing that I find myself explaining. That just because I am a composer of contemporary music and one who works very hard at notating my music very precisely, does not mean I expect to hear music in terms of bar lines and grids and whatnot. The end result I am always hoping for is that the listening experience be one that touches us as human beings.
ICA: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
SR: Honestly I can’t imagine myself not being a musician, not leading a life in music. I enjoy writing (writing words, I mean), and when I was young I thought I had a certain interest in acting. But none of this ever rose to the level of considering it over music. Music is my true calling. It’s not a “choice”. For me it just is.
Additional listening recommendations from the composer:
“Spirit”, the last of the three solo works, recorded recently by John Bruce Yeh on Cedille Records.
“Three Scenes for Clarinet”
“For an Actor”
Shulamit Ran’s works can be found at her publishers’ sites.
Theodore Presser: https://www.presser.com/shulamit-ran
Israeli Music Institute: https://www.imi.org.il/Shulamit%C2%A0Ran-%C2%A0-Israel-Music-Institute