In celebration of 91Classical's Local Composers Month, we posed six questions to some of Nashville's classical music creators. This week, we'll hear from composer, electric violin pioneer, and genre-bender Tracy Silverman.
How would you describe your compositional style?
Probably the most evident stylistic approach in my music is rock. It’s my voice on my instrument, the electric violin.
Compositionally, I believe in an approach which is very unpopular in the contemporary composition world, which is a belief in the power of melody and groove. This is beginning to change, finally, but for a long time, melodies were evidently thought fit only for pop music, not serious music. I hold to the theory that music is an ancient language that communicates to all of us because we share some very primal musical instincts having to do with vocal communication and a sense of pulse and rhythm which is expressed naturally by our bodies. This is an ancient language we share. The challenge should be to use it to say something new, not to speak in some made up language no one understands.
Short answer: I embrace popular music.
What do you love about being a composer in Nashville?
Because Nashville has become a hub for so many different kinds of musicians, writers and artists, there is an unusually casual mixing of session players, songwriters, classical players, and various other tech related people, all of which make it easy to imagine a world where many people exist in a middle ground between various styles—bluegrass/classical, rock/soul, country/hip hop. Even though it has a reputation, as we all know, as the home of country music, it has also been a very important home for R&B and blues.
Most musicians that I’ve met don’t really like to be categorized, and in fact easily and happily jam or collaborate across genres if given the opportunity, But that opportunity requires an environment that encourages casual interactions like that. With all the clubs and studios here in Nashville, the opportunity for interaction happens quite a bit. More than any place that I know of, actually. It makes for an environment that fits well with my ethos—a respect for the pop song, and musicians' natural interest in other musicians and for the vast majority of music which exists in between categories.
Can you tell us a little bit about something you’re writing now?
I’m working on a series of pieces for a small ensemble based on hip hop beats that my 12-year-old son has created—sort of an electric string quartet with percussion and keyboards/loops. I’m deconstructing grooves and writing raps without words. And there will be a live video component, using the music and motion to interact with video processing.
Which composer do you wish was better known?
Terry Riley is a national treasure that few outside the new music world are aware of.
I’ve learned from him that to be free as a composer, you must follow your muse and that your muse consists of whatever musical experiences you’ve had. Styles and influences may mix and match as in a dream. Why not? Who cares? Creation is a completely judgement free zone. Censoring and editing your work should be like weeding a garden, not the fear-based, judgement-concerned process it often is. That was a big lesson.
How has playing the electric violin influenced you as a composer?
When I’m writing string music, which is a big part of what I do, it’s obviously a huge advantage to be a string player. But my journey with the electric violin took me down some very non-classical paths into the territory normally occupied by electric guitarists.
I was trained classically at the Juilliard School, but as soon as I graduated, I started building and playing electric 6-string violins in rock bands, something I did for many years. I did my graduate and post graduate work at CBGB’s and the other rock clubs in New York, learning how to play the violin like a guitar, basically. I developed a bowing technique I call Strum Bowing, (I have a book called The Strum Bowing Method: How to Groove on Strings,) And I was writing rock tunes of various styles, ranging from pop to prog-rock to art-rock to heavy grunge. Then I spent years playing jazz with the Turtle Island String Quartet, and then years playing raga with Terry Riley. My approach to the instrument was somewhat different in all these cases, and each of these musical experiences has had a huge effect on my writing and playing. For lack of a better term, I call it post-classical string playing. To me, the sound of the electric violin, which is essentially like an electric guitar only better, haha, blends wonderfully with a full symphony or smaller classical ensembles. It’s just another instrument.
You’ve said that as a performer, you work to break free from classical performance models by engaging the audiences more directly. Have you found ways to do that as composer as well?
That’s a good question, because it’s hard to look the listener in the eye when you’re not onstage, just on paper. But it’s the critical question, as a composer or as a writer: how do I create something that breaks into someone’s consciousness (past all the noise of life and all the music that has been composed before me,) and hopefully stays with them in some way—either as a musical element they can’t forget, or as some sort of dream-image, memory or association.
For my most recent concerto, I thought about this issue of how to grab and keep the audience’s attention from the very start of the writing process. I was commissioned to write about 25 minutes of music, so I thought, how on earth am I going to get someone to stay interested for that long? The answer I came up with was to make it a story, so they want to see how it ends—create a character they care about and tell a story. And I wanted it to have a video component that went along with the story, but in an abstract, first person perspective. Those were all things that were written into the piece and that don’t rely on the performer to engage the audience.
Keep up with Silverman and his music on his website.
Support for 91Classical's Local Composers Month comes from the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University.