Pianist Julia den Boer of the Wavefield Ensemble interviews composer Aaron Helgeson about his orchestral overture, "Echoes of Always"
You describe Echoes of Always as “an overture made from transcriptions of other overtures.” Can you discuss this a little further?
It’s music that’s collaged from tiny moments of French baroque opera overtures and unmeasured harpsichord preludes by François Couperin, stitched together with scraps of my own previous music.
So for example, the first half of one measure might start with a couple beats of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s overture to Acis et Galatée, with ornamentation I transcribed from contemporary interpretations, mixed with my own continuo realizations, transposed up a minor third, and juxtaposed with sonifications of weather data from the introduction of my anti-cantata Snow Requiem that include and add to the pitches in the Lully fragment. Then maybe the second half of the measure follows with a beat from the overture to Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, transposed down a major second, harmonized with transcriptions of homemade wax cylinder fiddle tune recordings from the opening of my string quartet Brief Regards for Sometimes.
Part of the idea came from Les eléméns, a baroque opera-ballet whose music was created independently by two separate composers, André Cardinal Destouches and Michel Richard Delalande. Even though the only thing tying the music together is the trappings of Baroque form, it’s almost impossible to tell who wrote what. I hope Echoes of Always preserves that feeling, but across a much larger stylistic and temporal threshold. By making my own contributions to the music seamless and ambiguous, I want people to constantly question what’s authentic and what’s novel.
What was your experience writing Echoes of Always? Was there anything unexpected about the writing process?
My music’s taken a surprising turn lately. Maybe not as surprising to me, since I’ve been slowly changing along with it. But it’s probably shocking to someone who might have heard things from ten years ago and then heard something I’m making now. Echoes of Always is a culmination of that turn. A turn away from “sound” and back toward music.
I’ve always been interested in using transcription as a way of drawing on our lived aural experience. Before, my focus was mainly on everyday sounds (foghorns in the San Francisco Bay, birdsong, people breathing). I’d cut them into fragments, transcribe those fragments as exactly as possible for acoustic instruments, and arrange them into a meaningful order.
"By making my own contributions to the music seamless and ambiguous, I want people to constantly question what’s authentic and what’s novel."
Somewhere along the way, it started making sense to use musical sounds. Sounds from music of the past. I guess there were lots of reasons for this — some pragmatic, some aesthetic, some social. But mostly I wanted re-engage with the things that got me started writing music in the first place.
You know, the playwright Bertolt Brecht had this useful notion of historicization. Of using contemporary forms thinly veiled as history to provide a critical distance from which to view the present. For Brecht it was the Thirty Years’ War, the Catholic inquisition of Galileo, or Prohibition-era Chicago. For me, it’s 17th-century European court opera, 19th-century French hunting calls, and Norwegian-American immigrant folk songs during the Homestead Act.
It’s a little like comic book superheroes. We all know the story of Superman, of Catwoman, of the Incredible Hulk. They’re so familiar that as long as they wear the costume, you can tell whatever story you want with them. A story that can feel really contemporary and personal. And it’ll produce a tension or drama with what we already know about the person. A costume allows for a dialog between different versions of “now” and “then.”
When did you start composing — and what or who were your early passions and influences?
When I was a teenager, I’d sneak out of school and hop on the bus to this CD store where they had a Used Classical section. It was the only music that you could listen to for free, which was important for me since I didn’t have money to be buying lots of music.
So I’d browse every inch of those two shelves, pick out a big stack of discs, and hunker down for a couple hours to listen. And hidden in between some pretty awful recordings of classics (think Bach’s Greatest Hits Vol. 10) were these gems of contemporary music that people had listened to once and just thrown away. Some of them still had their packaging.
"A costume allows for a dialogue between different versions of ‘now’ and ‘then.’ "
That’s how I was introduced to composers like John Cage, Phillip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Milton Babbit, Arvo Pärt, Louis Andriessen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Eleanor Hovda… there were even a couple Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane albums. Now I know how important these composers were, but back then I had no idea what I was listening to!
Then when I was 14 a local Bank of America branch in Oregon decided to sponsor a tuition-free composition course, offered through a community music school and taught by graduate students at the University of Oregon. I decided to enroll. There were three of us in the class. We were asked to bring in recordings we liked, so I saved up some lunch money to buy a few of my Used Classical finds and brought them in. We took turns writing our own music like it, and played it together on whatever instruments we had available. We were explorers in a frontier of endless possibilities. Our lives were permanently changed.
Teenagers always crave new experiences, and listening to piles of discarded CD’s was my fix. That was my ritual. When I think about it, those were the most important composition lessons I ever had. And I literally learned them from listening to other people’s garbage.
What do you like to do when you’re not composing?
I’m a politics junkie. The boring, unfiltered stuff. C-SPAN. The full text of district court decisions. Anything as long as its beginning-to-end and without commentary. Especially things that can’t be easily read through ideology. Give me the messy and contradictory parts. Land rights of public utility waterways through wildlife preserves. The ethics of military recruitment programs for young women in public schools. That’s where you see what people are really made of.
"Teenagers always crave new experiences, and listening to piles of discarded CD’s was my fix. That was my ritual. When I think about it, those were the most important composition lessons I ever had. And I literally learned them from listening to other people’s garbage."
I’m working on a big project right now for The Crossing that deals with this. It’s a set of music for many voices based on the Novgorod Codex, a 10th-century Ukrainian book of psalms whose carved wooden pages were covered in wax and overwritten hundreds of times with non-canonical religious texts by a missionary excommunicated from the Orthodox Church for using pagan messages in his worship.
The writing is acid-tongued. Here was this person at the dawn of a new millennium who was trying desperately to hold on to his religious past with one hand, and pull his people into the future with the other, only to be abandoned by the same institutions he represented. His response? To write his own liturgy, using his own alphabet, full of bitter sarcasm and heartfelt longing for a new age that could also accommodate the complexity of the past.
For me, all this is a good reminder of what’s lost in exchange for ideological purity. Like Brecht once said, “When something seems the most obvious thing in the world it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up.”
Aaron Helgeson (b. 1982, Eugene OR) is a composer who uses transcription, adaptation, fragmentation, and collage to find new ways of engaging with old musical traditions.