This interview marks a new CD release, Astro Dogs, on the Convivium label, featuring music of the American composer John Carbon played by pianist Steven Graff. Collaborators for many years, Carbon and Graff have previously released a CD of solo piano music (on the Zimbel label in 2012), and this new volume focuses on three of the composer’s more recent piano suites.
John Carbon (b. 1951) is recently retired after 36 years as the Richard S. and Ann B. Barshinger Professor of Music at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was educated at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Rice University, where his teachers included Peter Racine Fricker, Emma Lou Diemer, Thea Musgrave, and Paul Cooper. Carbon has written a large body of work in many genres, including three operas (a recording of the second, Benjamin, a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, is available on the Zimbel label), concertos and symphonic works, and numerous chamber/vocal/solo pieces. His work has been performed and recorded by major orchestras, including the Warsaw Philharmonic, Slovak Radio Symphony, Czech Radio Symphony, New York Chamber Symphony, Concordia, and the Seattle Symphony. Conductors include Gerard Schwarz, George Manahan, Vladimír Válek, Marin Alsop, and Robert Black. Performances have included premieres in Boston’s Symphony Hall; New York’s Avery Fisher, Alice Tully, Merkin, and Carnegie Halls; Smetana Hall in Prague; the Mozarteum in Salzburg; and the Wuhan Conservatory in China. Most of Carbon’s major works are available on CD releases.
Steven Graff is the newly appointed Professor of Piano at the Petrie School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He was previously based for many years in New York City, where he was a member of the piano faculty at Hunter College, the Macaulay Honors College, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and the Special Music School. A native of Chicago, Graff has appeared with the Chicago Symphony nine times and has received numerous awards and critical acclaim. His own degrees in piano performance are from the Juilliard School and the Graduate School of CUNY. Graff has concertized widely (including tours of the USA, China, Norway, Japan, Italy, and Israel) and has appeared frequently on radio broadcast and CD. His previous CD releases include albums on the Centaur, Capstone, and Zimbel labels.
I have been friends with John Carbon for many years and have served as the producer for several of his recordings including this CD and Steven Graff’s previous album of piano music. I asked both the composer and pianist some questions about their work and this recording.
John, this is now the second solo piano recording that is a collaboration with pianist Steven Graff. How did you and Steve begin working together?
JC: Although Steve and I haven’t been able to pin this down with certainty, we think it was around 1985 when I made a demo tape of one of my operas in New York City. One of the singers knew Steve, and he played the accompaniment. Collaboration has been pretty much continual since that point on—including more opera projects, concertos, chamber music, and solo recordings. We’ve also done reciprocal guest teaching appearances at schools where we were faculty members.
What is involved in your collaborative process for preparing these pieces with Steve?
JC: After I send Steve the music to consider, he has a very small number of initial questions. Most of the work occurs in person. I’ve usually spent the day at his apartment in NYC where he plays through everything and we “try on” the interpretation he has developed, adjusting it very slightly in some cases. If there is something lacking or too different in conception, Steve is amazingly adept at making on-the-spot changes in mood, color, tempo, and character. We’ve developed the ability to work through a large amount of music in a relatively short amount of time. I think we only met for 4–5 hours preparing for the Convivium recording. We’ve worked together so long that he usually knows exactly what I have in mind. Some of our more recent discussions have centered on how to convey irony and humor in my music.
Steve, what are some of the things that have drawn you to continue working with John’s music over so many years?
SG: It is a great joy to work with John. As a performer, I always look forward to Carbon projects with anticipation and excitement. I think we just work well together. I know that a collaboration will involve a balance of perspectives and a combination of give and take. Plus, when working with John I feel that I can be myself, that my goal isn’t to impress or dazzle. It’s okay, even appreciated, if I just play the music genuinely and humanly. I find that John’s music has the ability to take me on musical journeys to new places, places I haven’t been before. He doesn’t rely on a familiar style or gesture or formula that has been successful in the past. He dares to always explore, and in that sense a new Carbon collaboration is always something completely new for me. His textures and colors and lyricism have a certain honesty to me, while at the same time being highly inventive and imaginative.
John, although you studied the piano from your early years, and while you had certainly composed music for the piano (chamber/solo/orchestral), it wasn’t until about 2000 that you started really writing a large quantity of solo piano pieces. What was the impetus that brought about these solo works?
JC: Steve’s playing has been an inspiration. I’ve also known several other outstanding pianists who have commissioned works in the last 20 years. Over the last couple decades, I’ve enjoyed following the emergence of new superstar pianists from the international festivals, and comparing interpretations of the standard repertoire by listening to many different historically important recordings. Even though I don’t perform as a pianist, I play through the literature myself, which also keeps my interest alive. I studied piano throughout my graduate education and had some wonderful teachers. I also first encountered music through the piano as a child. My father took me to a piano recital series in Chicago at Orchestral Hall. Steve grew up in Chicago and attended some of the events on that series (in a different decade). I heard all the famous pianists at an early age, so I know that literature very well and the difference between various playing styles. In some ways the more recent emphasis on this medium has been a return to my roots.
Do you use the piano in your compositional process, even when not writing piano music?
JC: I sit at the piano, but sometimes only strike a note or two. If it’s a piano composition I do play through passages to try to find the most playable solution for each passage. I also experiment with color and voicings at the instrument.
During the 1990s, you focused primarily on writing some major orchestral works, particularly concertos (including a piano concerto for William Koseluk). Is there any influence from the world of orchestral scoring that affects how you approach the piano?
JC: Two of my teachers were very adamant about not writing for the piano and then translating the music for the orchestra. They felt that one should “write directly for the orchestra.” I think there are two different types of color one can think about with piano writing and performance. There are the colors only obtainable on the modern concert grand piano, and then there are colors one can create that emulate orchestral effects. Even though I’ve orchestrated the Astro Dogs set of pieces after the fact, I wasn’t thinking of orchestral color when writing the work. I do rely on pianistic color in my work through specific voicings, pedaling, articulation, and resonance. I gave Steve a copy of the orchestrated version of Astro Dogs when he was preparing for the recording, and he said it was enjoyable, but it didn’t really influence his voicings and color choices.
One of the suites on this CD, Madeleines, deals with memory: both real and “imagined.” You have a number of other pieces that also deal with your past memories—the two sets of Spanish Lessons, Small Town Memories, Ghost Town Sketches, among others. How literal does the inspiration become for you when writing these sorts of pieces?
JC: I’m not always sure what a piece is about until I’m well into it, so I would have to say it’s somewhat like a fictional novel that is a bit autobiographical. In the case of Madeleines, I did set out to write a set of pieces about a trip I took with my sister in my early 20s, and some of the pieces are based on actual events and places. However, that didn’t stop me from inserting a piece that was inspired by a different trip. I like to be flexible about extra-musical inspiration, not literal.
The largest piece on this new CD, Astro Dogs, is your second set of “animal zodiac” character pieces, following Astro Cats (1994) for guitar. Do you remember how you originally came to the idea of matching up animal breeds with the zodiac signs?
JC: The cat set is different in that I wasn’t thinking about different types of cats. Instead I was thinking about different aspects of cat personality. The dog set was partly inspired by my participation in a dog agility class. It is a mixed breed class and the different ways the varied types of dogs and their owners approached the pastime gave me the idea. Over the years I wrote a few bestiary pieces (depicting different types of animals) and studied astrology for a long time. I have a couple of published articles that interpret George Crumb’s zodiacal pieces for piano.
The other work on this new CD, Three Impromptus, could be seen perhaps as “pure music.” You mention of course Chopin and Schubert in your program notes. Your overall output as a composer has both works that are pure music and many works that have some sort of very specific image or inspiration: whether that be an affectual image or something quasi-programmatic. Is the process different when writing these different kinds of pieces? For the pieces with non-musical images, is the image always firmly in place for you before you begin composing the notes? Or are there cases where the music starts to come first and the image reveals itself later?
JC: I would say, prima la musica in all cases. By that I mean even if an image comes to me before writing any musical notes, I try to put the music first. A good story or gimmick doesn’t mean much by itself, and I think the music has to stand on its own even when there’s a text. There are plenty of times when music pops into my head, and I have to try to determine what the piece is about. I don’t know if anything I have written since the mid-1980s is really abstract. But are the Schubert impromptus purely abstract music? I haven’t imposed any specific images on the listener through the title. However, I think the three pieces have distinct “characters,” and that would probably suggest extramusical content—but maybe not for everyone. I tried to make my impromptus purely reliant on melody, color, and form. I imagine some listeners might experience them as pure music.
Steve, although John’s work has figured very heavily in your collaborative life in the last few decades, have you worked with other living composers?
SG: Yes. I was always fascinated with playing new works for composers. As a young boy I remember recording several pieces by Robert Muczynski on a cassette tape and mailing it to him. My piano teacher at the time, Eloise Niwa, helped to connect us. He wrote back a gracious letter which I saved all these years. As a Juilliard student, Beveridge Webster had me bring in contemporary works almost weekly to lessons, such as pieces by David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti, who were members of the composition faculty. More recently, as an adult, I’ve premiered works in New York by Phillip Ramey and Paul Kirby, stylistically quite different but both gifted composers.
For some of the Carbon projects, the pieces have been recorded for CD before they’ve been performed in live concert. Does that affect your preparation of the music differently at all?
SG: John has such a good ear that just knowing that he will hear a piece before a recording or before a live concert encourages me to be as loyal to the score as I can in both instances. I remember playing a chamber piece of John’s early on in our musical relationship, in which he asked about one note which was in the middle of a big, sonorous passage in which all the instruments were (I thought) somewhat overshadowing the piano part. It turns out he was right—I had been misreading one note. I was amazed at his astuteness and complete knowledge of his own work. So I think I prepare just as thoroughly for an upcoming live performance as a studio session when I know I’m meeting with John beforehand!
In addition to your performance and recording activities, you are an active piano teacher to college students. Does new music form a part of what you work on with your students? What is your opinion about how playing contemporary works should fit into the repertoire of somebody studying to be a pianist? I know at some conservatories/programs, one can graduate with a piano degree without ever having played a piece by a living composer or even a piece of slightly recent vintage.
SG: I have to say I’ve found that all too often piano students who play at extremely high levels are often lacking in their experience with new music. When I ask new students for repertoire lists I’m surprised that too often they don’t go beyond Debussy. Recently I introduced a new student to Barber’s Excursions, as they were perfect for her, and I was surprised that the composer (who has been dead for almost 40 years) was completely new to her. Not to mention actual living composers! I believe playing new music should absolutely form a part of piano curricula at colleges and conservatories. I also love connecting piano majors with composition majors to encourage collaboration. It’s beyond rewarding to see students interacting and loving art together. © 2020 Fanfare