Interview with Jonathan Russell

On February 27th, 2016 Kaleidoscope gave the West Coast Premiere of Jonathan Russell’s Bass Clarinet Concerto. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Russell and not only talk about the inspirations he had for writing this piece, but what life is like as both a professional composer and clarinetist. It became obvious to me that even though Mr. Russell is someone who leads an extremely busy professional life, he handles it all with grace and still finds time to lead a happy home life with his wife and newborn son.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started as a composer? 

Jonathan Russell: Well, I’m still active as a performer on clarinet and bass clarinet, and started playing clarinet when I was nine, but I started composing when I was fourteen. I went to the Kinhaven Music School for three summers when I was in high school for clarinet, but they also had a student composer concert. It had never occurred to me to write music, but when I heard the cool things my friends were writing on the student composer concert, I thought, “Hey, I want to do that too!”

CR: That’s cool. Did you have anything of yours performed there?

JR: Yeah, so the first piece I ever wrote was for two clarinets and bassoon, which was performed during my second summer at Kinhaven. My dad also plays clarinet so I had previously played it with him and a friend of his. I’ve always written a lot of stuff for myself since I’m also a performer and it’s a big part of what I do. 

CR: So, what kinds of things do you notice that are different between being a professional composer but also a professional performer? 

JR: It’s a very different sort of work flow. With composing, you personally don’t have the pressure of a performance of a piece that you’ve been working on for a long time, but that said, it’s also much less certain when you have a concert schedule for a performance. However ready you are for a concert as a performer is how you play, but as a composer there’s always some more tweaking that you can do. It’s never quite clear when it’s done, so it’s very different vibe to both of them. 

CR: Do you find yourself really scheduling out when you practice and when you write, those kinds of things? I mean, I’m just a performer and trying to do one thing professionally is difficult enough. 

JR: Yeah, it’s tricky. Often times it’s just a natural ebb and flow where I’ll have a big composing project and that’s what my main focus will be, or I’ll have a big concert coming up and that’s what my focus is on. Every now and then they do overlap and things get crazy and stressful. For example, just this last month I had this big piece I was finishing up but I also had an audition that I was preparing for and that was really tricky trying to figure out how to divide up my time. Usually though, there’s a natural ebb and flow to it.

CR: That’s good, I’m glad. So, I don’t detect an English accent…

JR: Yes, I’m American. I grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY.

CR: So what brings you to London then? 

JR: I’ve been here for about 2 ½ years and I moved for my wife’s job. She’s also an American but she got offered a really good job here and I’ve always thought it’d be really fun to have the chance to live in Europe. 

CR: Is your wife a musician as well?

JR: She’s a very good amateur cellist -- we actually met playing chamber music together in college -- but  she has a “normal” job. She works for a philanthropic organization.

CR: Wow, that’s interesting. Do you miss America at all or do you enjoy being an ex-pat? 

JR: I miss it sometimes. When I go back to the US I get a bit nostalgic for it, but when I’m away I don’t miss it so much. Americans are very friendly and that’s always nice when I go back. There’s just this openness and warmth about Americans, and British people especially aren’t really known for that. 

CR: Are you going back to America for the Kaleidoscope premiere? 

JR: No, unfortunately. This is actually the West Coast premiere, this piece was already premiered. I was hoping to make it but I have a 3 ½ month old baby so I feel like I have to be pretty selective on my traveling. I have a premiere later on in the spring which I am going back for. I really am disappointed to miss it because I love what Kaleidoscope does and I know Ben [Mitchell] is going to do a great job with it. 

CR: Aw congratulations! Well, I’m sure they’ll miss you. Are you tired all the time from the baby? 

JR: It’s ok now, he’s sleeping pretty well now but the first month was pretty crazy. 

CR: I bet. How did you hear about Kaleidoscope’s Call for Scores? 

JR: That’s a good question, I’m trying to remember. I think it was through a composer site that I look at that lists composer competitions. I check it about once a month and see what’s up there, but it also might have been through Facebook. I honestly can’t remember. But, a lot of composers apply to lots of these competitions, and it’s kind of a steady cycle and I often don’t remember what exactly I’ve applied to and how I found out about certain things. 

CR: Why did you choose to submit your Bass Clarinet Concerto?

JR: I’ve composed it pretty recently and I thought it was representative of my current composing style and I felt good about it as a piece. I don’t have that many orchestral pieces that I’ve written so I didn’t have that many options to submit, but I do remember checking out Kaleidoscope when I applied for the competition and thought that they’d sound really great on this piece. 

CR: Did the fact that they orchestra was conductorless play any part of that decision?

JR: I certainly found that intriguing that it was conductorless, but the premiere of this piece had a conductor and it wasn’t written with a conductorless orchestra in mind. Although I am a big fan of conductorless orchestras. It creates a certain level of commitment from all the players that you don’t necessarily have when there’s a conductor calling all the shots. It certainly made this competition stand out amongst other orchestral composer competitions. 

CR: You said that this piece is more of your composing style for what it is currently, but exactly how would you describe your writing style at the moment?

JR: I would say that my style has gravitated towards more lyrical and romantic. I used to write a lot of post minimalist works, and I feel like I’ve sort of kept some of that but added more of a sense of drama and narrative and lyricism to that. 

CR: Are there any composers or other pieces that specifically influenced that? 

JR: I don’t know, honestly. There are a bunch of composers who have influenced me generally, but I’m not sure that there are any specific ones that have influenced this piece in particular. If anyone, I would say Shostakovich. I’m really into his symphonies and the way that he sort of tows that line between modern and classical and has dissonant and abrasive elements, but it also has that narrative and it’s dramatic and romantic in a way as well. 

CR: Which Shostakovich symphony are you currently listening to? 

JR: I’ve been into the 6th lately. 

CR: Were there any specific motivations for writing this concerto? 

JR: Yes, there’s a specific motivation. It’s my PhD dissertation piece for my degree I’m working on at Princeton and I wrote it for myself to play with the Princeton Student Orchestra. I’d been talking with the conductor about writing a concerto for the orchestra at some point, and that was kind of my logistical and practical motivation for writing it. Also, I’d been wanting to write a piece for a while where I could explore my own strengths and idiosyncrasies as a bass clarinetist. I wanted to write a concerto that was virtuosic not in the sense of having really fast notes, but virtuosic in terms of all the sounds that can be created on the instrument. 

CR: Did you have a specific process for writing this piece, or in general what is your process like while writing a piece from start to finish?

JR: It’s totally haphazard. I mean, I set the time aside to write regularly, I guess that’s a process in a way. I don’t wait for inspiration to hit, I have my routine every morning where I go and compose. But, really this piece evolved in unexpected ways and I was really stuck on it for quite a while. I got obsessed with these chord progressions and these sort of sinking string harmonies and I thought I had sort of written a string orchestra piece which was bad because it was supposed to be a bass clarinet concerto. But, I figured out how to add the bass clarinet line on top of these string harmonies which eventually became my first movement. Then, the melody that I wrote in that movement became the basis for the cadenza and the second movement, but on a whole I had a completely different form in mind when I first started out. 

CR: What was your idea at the beginning? 

JR: I’m trying to remember, but my idea was more of the traditional concerto format with the fast-slow-fast type of thing. I was just having a ton of trouble coming up with fast material that I liked and I just kept being drawn to these slow, lugubrious harmonies. At one point I was going to have a chant and a dance or something-I was all over the place which is pretty typical. I usually don’t know how the piece is going to shape up when I start it, and usually what I think it’s going to be isn’t how it ends up. 

CR: How do you know what you want to choose at that point? Obviously it’ll change in ways over the course of writing it, but how do you create something out of that if the piece you eventually compose doesn’t resemble what you originally thought it was going to look and sound like? 

JR: Well, for me it’s usually just by fiddling around on the piano, and I just find material that I’m really drawn to for whatever reason. Sometimes there’s just no good reason for it. It’s not necessarily inherently amazing or beautiful, but for whatever reason it’s something that just grabs you and then that motivates you to play around with it a bit. It’s a mysterious thing though. I find that if I’m trying to force it to be something that I want it to be instead of just following where it leads me I’m less successful in the end. So, the fewer preconceived expectations I have of a piece I’m trying to write, the more I can listen to the material and try and hear where it wants to go, and ultimately I’m more successful that way. Some composers start out with their structure in advance and that’s great if that’s what works for them, but I don’t do that. In regards to form, at least for me, it will just emerge from within the material. So, for example with this concerto, I got really obsessed with this slow music and ultimately I thought that that was a good way to start the piece. The form that eventually turned up was this slow movement, then a cadenza, then a fast movement that gets faster and faster, which is not the form you normally have in a concerto, but I wound up really liking it. It’s also very similar in form to the Copland clarinet concerto even though I hadn’t really been thinking about at the time-I just retroactively realized that it was a similar form. 

CR: Was there a specific choice in the bass clarinet over other clarinets?

JR: Mostly that I just specialize in bass clarinet. I play clarinet as well, but I feel that I have a much more distinctive voice on bass clarinet and I’m interested in expanding the range of what the instrument can do. Plus, it’s just a less common instrument you see performing a concerto. The bass clarinet didn’t really enter the orchestra full time until the mid 19th century, and it didn’t really start being used as a virtuosic instrument until the 1960s either. It’s a pretty young instrument which is part of what’s exciting about it. 

CR: What’s your favorite thing about the instrument?

JR: Just the range of what it can do. It has a huge range, it can go much higher in pitch relative to where the regular clarinet can go and it also has a huge range of timbres. It can be really soft and delicate, and it can be really wild and aggressive. There’s just so much in it, there are so many different ways of playing it and so many colors that it can make. 

CR: More specific to Kaleidoscope, have you ever worked with a conductorless orchestra before? 

JR: I have not. 

CR: What is one of the more unique things you’ve discovered about the orchestra since you’ve started collaborating with them? 

JR: I’m curious to actually learn more about their rehearsal process because I don’t really know how they do it, how it all works. That’s another reason I’m sad that I’m not going to make it out for the performance because I would really like to see how they make it happen without a conductor. But, I was really struck by the fact that they seem to have an innovative approach to how they publicize their concerts. I remember seeing something about how they teamed up with Lyft for their last concert which I thought was cool, and I think they tend to do shorter concerts without an intermission which is a refreshing approach. When I found out my piece had been selected I also remember that Ben got in touch with me and sent me a list of other pieces that the orchestra was considering doing and wanted my input on programing. My piece is paired with L’Ascension by Messiaen which is a piece I love and I think will set off the concerto in a really interesting way. I really appreciated that they seem to take a lot of care in thinking about how they’re going to program concerts and what the relationships to each of the pieces are. 
It’s the only time an ensemble has ever consulted with me about what I think should be programed with my piece and that was very cool. 

CR: Well I’m glad! So what sorts of things are you expecting to happen during the rehearsal process, even though you’re not going to be there?

JR: Well, I know Ben is going to try and send some recordings of the rehearsal so I can provide some feedback, but I don’t think any of the orchestral parts are particularly difficult so I don’t think people will have any problems playing their parts. There are a lot of tempo changes in the piece so that will probably be the biggest challenge in how to make those happen. Often, they’re led by the soloist which I think will help, but that’ll probably be the main thing that will be tricky about it is setting up the tempo changes. I actually think it will probably come together fairly smoothly though.

CR: Why do you feel that people should consider supporting this orchestra?

JR: I think they’re bringing a very fresh approach to presenting classical music both in terms of the repertoire and what they’re programing, but also how they’re putting it together and in terms of where they’re presenting it. It just seems like on multiple levels that they’re a breath of fresh air for classical music and for the Los Angeles community. 

CR: In general, what do you hope to glean from this whole experience with Kaleidoscope?

JR: It’s an interesting situation for me because I wrote the piece with myself in mind, not really expecting other people to want to play. It’ll actually be the first time I really hear anyone else playing this piece as a soloist so I’m really interested to see what that’s like and what Ben brings to the piece. I’m also interested to see how it works with a conductorless orchestra, and see how the whole thing plays out since I’m not as involved with it as I usually am. It’ll be interesting to see how much translates through the notation and through people’s intuitive understanding of the music, and I think they’ll get it pretty well without needing my input necessarily. 

CR: What do you feel like is going to be different having been the performer on this piece, but now being the composer on this piece? 

JR: There’s a certain loss of control which is a little scary. When I’m up there performing I can play it exactly how I want it to be and sort of be there supervising and making sure everything is coming off well. What I found in the past is that when I let go and let other people interpret my music they often come up with really cool and interesting ways to play it that I hadn’t thought of because I’m too close to it. So, as a composer/performer there’s something scary about having people play a part you wrote for yourself. I wrote it with my own technique in mind and so I don’t really have a great sense of how my playing is or isn’t similar to Ben’s and if what is challenging or not challenging to me is or isn’t challenging to him.

CR: On the opposite of all of this, what are some of your hobbies outside of being a new dad?

JR: *laughter* I really like exploring cities, especially since I live in Europe-that’s one of my favorite things to do. I could wander around London forever. I’m really fascinated by architecture and urban development and planning and seeing how cities are laid out, that kind of thing. I really like walking and going for long hikes, going bicycling. My wife and I usually take a biking trip in the Netherlands every year which is amazing. But recently I’ve gotten into cooking, we do this service called ‘Hello Fresh’ and every week we get a box of food delivered to our house to make specific recipes and such. We’ve been doing that for a couple months now and I’m finally learning how to cook through that. 

CR: Do you have a favorite quote or mantra? 

JR: This is more for composing than life generally, but I like something that comedian Louis C.K. said on an interview about his show “Louie” which was “you can do anything that you want”. I think that’s a really good mantra for composing because it’s very easy to feel constrained by what you’ve done in the past, what you should be doing, or what you think a composer ought to do. But, one of the greatest things about writing music is that you really can do whatever you want, and you don’t have to be bound by constraints. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good life slogan, but it is for composing *laughter* 

CR: *laughter* yeah, that would be nice. Are there any charities or specific causes that you’re passionate about that you want to raise awareness to?

JR: Nothing particularly unique, but I care a lot about LGBT rights and income equality, especially in the United States. 

CR: What’s one of your most memorable music moments? 

JR: I play some Klezmer music and the first time that I got into it I went to this Klezmer camp. On the last night, everyone was up and dancing and the feeling of playing music and everyone responding to it and dancing, that was the first time I’d experienced that. In classical music you don’t experience that at all, but I remember that that was such a high and I loved it. I still remember how incredible that was the first time I experienced that. 

CR: Thank you so much for speaking with me! Have a fantastic premiere!

JR: Thank you!

Carrie Rexroat