A Critic's Notebook: A few questions with Richard Prior

A new shell for the symphony, with incantations to follow

The Atlanta Symphony season kicks off tomorrow evening, and there's a lot that's new this year. Symphony Hall has a new shell designed to improve the oft-criticized acoustics of the venue: audiences will find out opening night whether or not the shell accomplishes what it's intended to do. And although the first night dives headfirst into stalwart classics - the three B's of Brahms, Bach and Beethoven - it won't be long until the Symphony takes on one of several world premiere works that are interspersed throughout the season. First up is a new piece commissioned for the ASO by Music Director Robert Spano, written by Atlanta-based composer and Emory professor Richard Prior. I caught up with Prior via email to ask a few questions about the work, which will have its world premiere at Symphony Hall on October 3.

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  • Ann Borden
  • PRIOR'S COMMITMENT: Senior Lecturer and Director of Orchestral Studies Richard Prior's new work "...of shadow and light... (incantations for orchestra)" will have its world premiere at Atlanta's Symphony Hall on October 3.

Tell us about the curious title of your piece "...of shadow and light... (incantations for orchestra)." What is an incantation in this context?
A great question! The two parts of the title are as you might expect, related: "... of shadow and light... " captures the interplay of musical elements and characterizations within the dramatic spectrum found in the work. There is a musical tapestry of events and ideas that we hear unfold in the work that has many shades of dramatic and emotional contrast. Given that music can have a direct effect on our mood and disposition (for example, fast music in a predominantly bright, major mode can make us energized and positive), I am drawing upon those associations to lead the listener on a path that is truly experiential. "Incantations" really refers to Music's ability to evoke those responses through the essential cultural 'ritual' of live performance while honoring the Latin origins of the compound word incantare , in- "into" in the sense of moving toward or through and "cantare", a much associated musical term meaning "to be sung".

What will audiences hear when it has its world premiere?

My hope is always to truly engage the audience with music that is not overly complex or dense but that at the same time does not insult their sophistication by using 'lightweight' material or stylistic references. The critical balance is to always engage but still challenge, always leave the audience with the sense that they have been a part of the journey and have a tangible memory of that concert experience. An essential part of this is also to have created something in which the orchestra and conductor can find the same values - they are as much a part of the audience from the composer's perspective as the public, a dynamic often overlooked. If they are not 'sold' then you're in trouble!

Your description of the piece in ASO materials says that the motifs are "transformed throughout the work in much the same way that characters evolve or are put into contrasting situations in a play or film." Are you a big movie buff? Has it influenced your compositional style? Any particular films or narratives come to mind as especially influential on this piece, or your work in general?

I have a deep appreciation for film as an art form! Like much music, it exists as a linear, temporal experience - in other words we experience the organization and unfolding of events in a specific timeframe. It is unlike a painting where you could choose to spend a few seconds or hours in front of the image discovering its nuances. It's not really the actual film scores that have influenced me so much as pacing and intricate structures that many films have. There is an image depth to film - foreground, middle ground and background - that I find very analogous to particularly orchestral writing. Things that you hear in the background can in an illusory way 'move' towards the foreground. In terms of the dramaturgy, secondary musical ideas (supporting actors!) can be transformed into primary ideas; characters (melodies) can find themselves surrounded by highly contrasting circumstances - you might have heard this as a calm, melodic fragment in the flute but later, here it is extended, re-harmonized, faster and dominated by the powerhouse of the brass section.


Is it a challenge to balance being an academic with being an artist? Or do you feel those roles fit together easily in your life?

Most of the time, these things do exist in a reasonable balance for me. As with most things, if you are teaching it, you really have to know it in a way that transcends simply having the knowledge. Teaching is also an inspiration in itself - seeing how either in my various orchestras or with my composition students that moment of discovery, that 'owning' of the musical moment and the sense of artistic fulfillment and excitement. While exhausting on occasion, it absolutely feeds and refreshes your own creativity.

For people who don't follow the world of contemporary composition closely, how would you describe the state of the art? Where do you think the field is headed?

Many theses, books and articles have been and continue to be written on this, so I'll offer just a couple of thoughts! Firstly, we are faced with an unprecedented multiplicity of musical styles and esthetics from at least the early twentieth century to the present. These are a product of the same explosive diversity of cultural, sociological and technological that is common to the Human experience. Art reflects (or occasionally deflects in an escapist way) Life. In the eighteenth century for example, it would be fair to say that Western art music sounded relatively similar: early Mozart being in the same vein as late Haydn, late Beethoven predicting Brahms. Will there be a return to one pervasive style in music? Highly unlikely given our cultural, intercultural and creative experiences of the last century or so. What we are left with is a dynamic steady state that allows and encourages the coexistence of many different styles.

Where are we headed? Clearly, we are in a period of history where Art in general is redefining its role and relationship to the overall culture in which it exists to a greater degree than ever before; conversely its role is also being redefined by its environment! Artists have to be responsive to the changing landscape of how their work has meaning and relevance while still pushing the personal boundaries and aspirations that we all have as creative individuals. Again, this is a huge topic of conversation with limitless permutations but a critical one. It is vitally important that leading institutions in the Arts such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continue their vision of supporting the creation and presentation of new works so that we are headed forward and not standing still!