Name: The Crossing
Interviewee: Donald Nally (conductor)
Recent release: The Crossing feature on John Luther Adams' Sila: the Breath of the World, out now via Cantaloupe Music.
If you enjoyed this interview with Donald Nally of The Crossing and would like to find out more about his work with the choir, visit their official website. They are also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
When did you first start getting interested in musical interpretation?
I don’t feel what I do is interpretation; it’s more like ‘intense reanimation,’ with the goal that the piece sounds like it’s being thought up on the spot. That includes what I perceive to be the emotional intention, so I suppose that’s the interpretation part.
Anyway, the answer to your question is “When I was in middle school.”
Which artists, approaches, albums, or performances captured your imagination in the beginning when it comes to the art of interpretation?
I don’t think the conductors I really admire think of themselves as adding something to the music, though those certainly exist.
My models were my teachers (I was very fortunate to have great teachers), Bernstein, and Abbado – the latter two are very different podium personalities, both with enormous artistic integrity and somewhat different ways of listening.
Are there examples for interpretations that were entirely surprising to you personally and yet completely convincing?
Hmmm …hard to single out. I was an opera chorus master in a former life, and in Wales I did a production of Wozzeck that Jurowski conducted. It wasn’t quite what I expected – lusher and rounder; it was terrific. I love Berg.
I was an assistant to Spiros Argiris on Elektra, and the way he invited the piece to be sung and accompanied was revelatory and influential.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to interpretation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?
We all are. Disassociating from lineage is like trying to be born an adult; it’s not possible, and least for humans, and you can hear or see it in the work of someone intentionally discarding how we got here. There are so many artists that have truly influenced me; I mean, everybody you work with you learn from, though you’re learning what not to be/do.
For words, Sinatra, Simone, Streisand, Morgana King; for color my mentor Joe Flummerfelt; for musical approach to larger works, Spiros and Bernstein. But my influences go way beyond music and way beyond re-creators to the bedrock of who I am as an artist: the poets Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Jaime Sabine, and Philip Levine the playwrights Tom Stoppard, Seneca, and Sam Shepard; the composers Ted Hearne, Claudio Monteverdi, and Josquin des Prez; the activists Elizabeth Warren and Anthony Romero; the physicists Richard Feynman, Erwin Schrodinger, and Benoit Mandlebrot; the Tao, Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas but not so much of those other gospels, Shakespeare, Peter Sellars, Peter Brook, Mamet ...
It all adds up to how I hear a piece. The person who revels in Rothko is going to hear a piece differently than one who seeks out Sargent.
Could you describe your approach to interpretation on the basis of a piece, live performance, or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Argh. You may discard this whole interview if you like, because I shy away from this word interpretation. Plus, I don’t listen to my own music-making after we’re finished editing an album (part of that’s just being tired of hearing it over and over again in editing).
I’ll take a stab: while I do not love every minute of our recording of Gavin Bryars’ A Native Hill, there are moments when I am aware that I am listening in a way that allows the room to be listening in the same way, and then the music just kind of tells us where it wants to go, and we follow that. I try for that at every moment of conducting, to greater or lesser success; it’s all in the listening and the breath.
It’s interesting that this interview comes with the release of John Luther Adams’s Sila: the breath of the world. That is a conductorless piece and it has no interpretive input, save for assuring that there is a unanimity of color within the five ‘choirs.’ It’s truly, ‘preparer as facilitator.’
There’s something really beautiful about drawing together the forces. It’s the ultimate reminder to a conductor that they are never the person who makes the sounds – never the person that listeners actually hear!
What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to interpretation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?
Leaving the music alone and letting it speak. It was hard for me to do that when I was younger because I had so much energy about what I wanted to say through music. (I was also an angry control freak, so that prevented me from listening at the level that I would like – or even thought that I was.)
I think I have evolved. If you’d asked me what I’m doing when conducting in my 20s, I’d have said “expressing”; in my 30s, “being the music”; in my 40s, “transitioning from leading to guiding”; in my early 50s, “facilitating and breathing”; and now, just “listening.”
In many cases, the score will be the first and foremost resource for an interpretation. Can you explain about how “reading” a score works for you?
Hmmmm … I’m often asked about score study and I sound like such a jerk when I say, “I just study the score.” But it’s true. I don’t have any tricks. I get out the score and I read it, and, for more complex scores, I start making marks that will serve as a little shorthand for what I’m listening for in rehearsal. I look at words first, then large structure, then detail. It’s not a profound process.
I do like to have several scores open at the same time; somehow my brain takes in more of each if I switch from one to the other. I love relationships between works – historical, style, technique, everything.
I love the quiet solitude of hearing a new piece in my head (and hands, at times) for the first time in my studio, alone.
One of the key phrases often used with regards to interpretation are the “composer's intentions”. What is your own perspective on this topic and its relevance for your own interpretations?
That’s all our job is, outside of being a ‘leader.’ Just do what it says.
When you have the score in front of you, what's your take on taking things literally, correcting possible mistakes, taking into account historical aspects, etc?
I do very little historical music these days, but we’re constantly finding little mistakes in old and new scores. Once you get to know a piece well, you can be fairly certain when something doesn’t appear to be a decision this composer would make. Composition is largely about solving problems, so understanding the nuances of a composers’ intention involves asking questions about why they made each decision … and from that, you can see what the intention is.
As for taking things as literal, it’s weird: yes and no. I want to be absolutely true to the score, but it’s just dots on a paper; it can’t actually do anything, so lots of non-literal stuff happens when it becomes sound.
What role does improvisation play for your interpretations?
I’m not much of an improvisatory person – not my gift. I’m a score musician.
I really love making the sounds of ink and finding out where the breath is in the music.
Interpretations can be wildly different live compared to the studio. What is this like for you?
Ah, there are so many factors here. If you have lots of time in the studio, I suppose you take more risks, but it’s so vital that it be super accurate because things that will never be noticed in live performance are magnified in recordings … and you can play them over and over. A moment you might just ‘go for’ in concert with the room on fire, you might approach with a bit of a different ear (while still going for it).
Much of what we record is unaccompanied; getting 8-part, 16-part, 24-part music to be perfectly in tune and error-free is, on the one hand, so exciting and rewarding, and on the other, a huge pain in the ass.
With regards to the live situation, what role do the audience and the performance space play for your interpretation?
I don’t think about the listener in performance, though I certainly do in planning the presentation – what the event will feel like.
I think we make music largely out of our own needs. What connects the listener is the level of honesty or intimacy – or the lack of performativeness; the recognition of themselves in the story we’re telling.
Acoustic is everything. Singing in dry spaces sucks.
With regards to the studio situation, what role do sound, editing possibilities and other production factors play for your interpretation?
We have the luxury of having the composer with us when we record and in post, so their wishes are paramount to this process.
For me, post/editing is all about ensuring the story is clear, and that almost always leads to technical things: balance, timing, pacing, and words.
Some works seem to attract more artists to add their interpretation to it than others; some seem to even encourage wildly different interpretations. From your experience, what is it about these works that gives them this magnetic pull?
Again, this is mainly in historical music or contemporary music that hasn’t yet ripped itself from the tyranny of a few chords tugging at you. I mostly don’t do music like that anymore – nothing wrong with it, my life just joyfully went elsewhere.
We don’t know exact tempi in a lot of music before 1800 and so someone has to make a decision, even though most of the clues are there about what a ‘close to the right’ tempo would be. So, you’re going to get these recordings of Bach, for example, that seem really fast or really slow and that’s all just a matter of taste, which is more or less the topic of these questions.
Despite tempo marking in later music, (many of which don’t seem to make sense anyway), the literature from the period of music in which the elongation of the time between leaving a key and returning (or cadencing) allows – invites - moments to bloom. That’s going to produce a wide variety of tastes.
I am of the opinion that what feels like a natural slowing into a final – or structural –cadence indicates a reluctance to leave a certain world, be it sound or emotional, and so that guides the ‘progress’ of what you’re calling interpretation. Same with rubato.
Artists can return to a work several times throughout the course of their career, with different results. Tell me about a work where this has been the case for you, please.
This happens often.
You really do learn stuff every day and you’re different from one day to the next, one year to the next. So, I’ll pick something up and think, “Wait – WHY did I do that”…,when, back then I thought it was the composer’s intention and now it just makes no sense to me.
This is especially true because The Crossing does a lot of premieres and in first performances you are sometimes still learning where the music wants to go. A second performance a couple of years later feels different – like you’re better friends with the piece and you trust more.
That’s one of many, many beautiful things about being a musician; you never stop evolving. What you thought was ‘true’ yesterday, may be a different ‘truth’ today. I love that – it means I’m growing.
Part of the intrigue of interpretations is that the process is usually endless. Are there, vice versa, interpretations that feel definitive to you?