Aaron Holloway-Nahun (submitted photo)
Composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum is a graduate of Edina High School in Edina, Minn., and has made it to the big time. But according to his neighbor (and singer in the Minnesota Chorale) Judi Harvey, Aaron is still Minnesota Nice.
Aaron lives in England now and is working with the BBC Symphony and London Sinfonietta. His music is colorful, full of wit and draws us right into its sound world. The folks over at the Copland House know this and awarded Aaron with a coveted, all-expenses-paid residency at the House in New York.
I recently caught up with Aaron for a little cross-Atlantic Q&A.
ALISON YOUNG: You say that you didn’t actually begin composing until you were 17. What was your musical involvement before then?
AARON HOLLOWAY-NAHUM: As a child, I was primarily involved in music as a singer (I also studied piano, but took singing more seriously). I sang in a number of state, regional and national honors choirs. I sang in the choirs throughout my time at Valley View Middle School, and at Edina High School, I was in the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers. I studied voice and piano privately throughout these years as well.
Was there anything specific that you did/learned/were exposed to in Edina that moved you to the path you’re on now?
The concert choir puts on a concert each spring term called “Current Jam,” and I put together a large, all-male, a cappella group in my Junior year. This required some arranging/composition work, and so I went to my choral director (Dr. David Henderson) and asked him if he had any advice on where I could learn some of this. I think he had a lot more in mind for me because instead of just giving me a book, or pointing out I could perfectly well write for the voice having sung for 10 years or so he sent me to the director of bands at Edina High School. The band director subsequently gave me a copy of Walter Piston’s Orchestration textbook. I’ll never forget opening it up and finding all this information about all the instruments. It had never even occurred to me that I could write for the violin without being able to play it myself. I immediately started writing music. A few months later I was accepted as a composition student on the Northwestern University Summer Music Program, and two years later I would enter Northwestern as a joint composition/vocal major. (I quickly dropped the voice major in favor of conducting studies!)
What drew you to study and work in London?
I had the incredible good fortune to study, at Northwestern, with Augusta Read Thomas. She had studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and through our conversations about European music and London in general I knew from about the end of my sophomore year, I think that I wanted to spend at least some time studying in London.
Tell me about SoundHub and maybe one especially cool experience you’ve had in this program.
LSO Soundhub is a recent program, established by the London Symphony Orchestra to try and create a community of composers who have a relationship with the orchestra. Soundhub events range from concerts of works by member composers, to workshops with LSO players, to interviews with composers such as John Adams and practical workshops on recording/publishing/etc.
I was a member of the pilot scheme and am now a member of the second and third year of Soundhub. There have been a number of incredible experiences; one of the everyday experiences it’s easy to forget is that the orchestra invites you into its rehearsals. This morning I heard the LSO rehearse Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, which is an astounding piece. To hear orchestral music rehearsed and performed live on a regular basis is too rare for composers today and a real privilege.
To pick one of my own experiences, though, I’d say working with LSO Players Lorenzo Iosco (Bass Clarinet) and David Worswick (1st violins) to create a work for amplified bass clarinet and amplified violin in the gorgeous LSO St. Luke’s. The work was really very collaborative. I had the chance to write blog posts about the process of writing the work (here, here and here) and the final work has ended up on the LSO YouTube Channel. It’s every composer’s dream to work with such incredible musicians, and to have such a wide platform for that work to be heard is really very exciting and humbling.
What does your work as a recording engineer bring to your work as composer?
It was actually my compositional work (an interest in live amplification, such as in the piece above) that led me into live sound and audio recording. There is certainly a feedback loop, though. When you’re working as a recording engineer, you need to think about sound in a very particular way. For example, you have to use all sorts of techniques, tricks and subtle adjustments to make a recording sound anything like the experience of seeing a piece live (this is why, for example, an orchestra cannot be suitably recorded by just sticking two microphones where the audience would sit). So as you’re working toward this you have to have a very clear picture of what you want this orchestra, or this solo instrument, or this band (or whatever it is) to sound like.
Then you get incredibly precise about the three aspects of the sound that most interest me as a composer: attack, sustain and decay. What does the front end of the sound sound like? You might be forced to make large or small adjustments as to microphone placement to account for this. Is everything blending together the way you want it to? Do the instruments interfere with or help each other musically? And in terms of decay what is the tail of the sound like? What kind of a space am I hearing this in?
This kind of precision is very dear to the way I compose. I work tremendously hard to think about the articulation and life of every note that I write. (Many composers think I write far too much information in my scores but I’m always receiving positive feedback on this exact point from musicians themselves). It also teaches you that unlike a recording you simply can’t control every element of a live performance. Someone seated at the back of the hall is simply going to have a different experience to someone at the very front of it. So what is their experience and what can I do, as a composer, to communicate as much as I can to both of them?
It’s all this sort of stuff!
What does it mean to you to be an “emerging” composer? What does it mean today to be a classical composer?
To be honest with you, this is kind of a running joke among people in the industry. These labels are very difficult things to get correct, and it’s not entirely clear how (or when) a composer goes from being “emerging” to “emerged” or whatever it is you might want to call it. What I can tell you is that most emerging composers have reached a really high level of musicianship and technical ability, but probably aren’t yet making a full-time career out of composition. Then again, being a classical composer today almost universally entails things such as teaching of some kind, and often other supplementary work such as my working as a recording engineer and as artistic director of The Riot Ensemble.
Tell me about your current projects.
I’ve had a really fantastic time this past year working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a project called “Embedded” run through a fantastic British organization called Sound and Music. The premiere of my new orchestral piece, The Deeper Breath to Follow, will take place on Thursday, Nov. 14. (Tickets are free if you’re in London!)
I’m also currently working with the London Sinfonietta on a December premiere in its New Music Show, am an LSO Soundhub member (for which I’m writing a new work for June) and am currently writing a Clarinet Quintet for Timothy Orpen.
I’m also continuing on in 2014 as Artistic Director of The Riot Ensemble. We’ll be announcing our 2014 season soon, which already includes commissions from all over the world and a number of really exciting projects.
What do you hope to accomplish at the Copland House? What are you looking forward to the most?
I am really looking forward to having day after day of uninterrupted time to compose. As you can see from everything I’ve said, composition really just makes up a part of what my day-to-day life looks like. I’m always being pulled away from my office table, which is where I work. At Copland House, all the rest of that will quiet down for a while and I will be able to pick up the pen in the morning without any need to put it down until I’m ready.
If all the stars aligned, what would your life look like?
I feel totally blessed just to be living the life I am living right now! Of course I would over time like to have even more time to dedicate to composition, but the truth is that I would never want to totally give up my other work. I think I’d really love to see The Riot Ensemble grow into an international new music organization that champions the works of emerging composers from all over the world, and my own dream is to be able to write orchestral music throughout my life. I just love orchestras so much!
Do you have videos or samples of your music that we can post online?
Yes, my website is probably the best place!
Here is a recent, short animation of a violin piece I wrote (animation by 12foot6):
Here is a video of me conducting The Riot Ensemble in the world premiere of my work ‘Plainer Sailing’ (text by Sasha Dugdale) in an London Symphony Orchestra Discovery Concert:
Here is an ‘introductory video to me’ from my website:
Here is a youtube video of my wife playing one of my Hugo Wolf song transcriptions: