What initially got you interested in the idea of composing?
I was probably around 14 years old. A friend, with whom I was also in a band with in some shape or form until I was 27, had the Noteworthy Composer software (remember that thing?). I remember being fascinated by the scrolling score and the fact that no matter what you wrote, the computer played it back. Yes, I’m fully aware that this mentality is not a great idea for, say, graduate students in composition, but to a high school freshman it opened a lot of creative doors. I got the software and pretty much dove in, trying out any idea that came to mind. At the same time, I was in drumline for marching band. We had this book of cadences (most high school/college drumlines have one large, intricate cadence; we had about 20 little ones). Most of these were hand-written (save the ones that our director stole from Ohio State and Ohio University) and were composed by him for our drumline. With equal fascination, I began hand-writing a whole book of drumline cadences. I found a cathartic release in the act of writing by hand; it hasn’t faded. Still today, I get the same calming sensation when I’m sitting in a comfy chair with a blank page in front of me, waiting. These cadences were also the first time I started working with polyrhythm and rhythmic dissonance, though I had no idea that I was doing something along those lines. But, and I still have them around here somewhere, you can see a lot of triplets against 16ths, 5 against 3, etc.
So, these pieces pretty much poured out of me all through high school. Sadly, it was during this time that I got the first wrong idea about my music: I had proudly, in my senior year, walked my book of 25 or so cadences and my triptych of mallet trios up to my band director, who was also my percussion teacher, and asked him to look at them. For lack of a better term, he pretty much dismissed the whole thing. A few weeks later, I bounced the idea of being a composition major by him; he gave me the “there’s no jobs in composition” line. These statements didn’t stop me from composing, but they did stop me from showing them to teachers. I wrote a lot during my undergraduate years, and with the exception of my percussion teacher, Ted Rounds, I showed them to no one because I had this weird block, this weird notion that I wasn’t good enough to formally study composition. It took a lot to finally start discussing composition with teachers, and even then it took a few years to finally put my foot down (equally towards myself and others) and cut my own path.
We’ve had some conversations about your music in the past, and how it is tied to your interests in visual art and literature. Could you talk a little more about how these other fields influence your music?
I doubt I could only talk a little, so get comfortable. Of the two, literature is by far the stronger influence; however, painting is by far the more concentrated and intense influence. What I mean is that when painting’s influence does show up, it is not subtle and it is very immediate, whereas literature’s influence is much more “in the blood” of the my approach to composition. Yes, Rothko is a huge influence and I could easily see someone saying, “You wrote a 90-minute piece for solo piano that covers a few areas of material; obviously there’s Rothko’s influence.” However, I would say that painting in general comes around more in that it gives me permission to toss the sudden change of color here, the visceral, disturbing 10-second thing over there, etc.. What I mean by “permission” is more of a justification to myself to do those things that a teacher (or an audience member or critic or someone who thinks the word “accessibility” means anything to me) may question.
With literature, I have to state this: By saying that I am influenced by literature, I do not mean that I am trying to recreate a particular story, emotion, or narrative in a programmatic way. I’m not trying to “set the stage” or “create an image” or portray a plot twist or anything like that. I’m not an author or storyteller, and when someone says, “here’s the part of the piece that portrays the part of the story when X happens,” my first reaction is, “Why? Why are you doing that? The author already made that moment happen in words; who are you to try and recreate it?” In other words, you won’t see me making a leitmotif, something that one has to follow and recognize that “this musical thing means this other extra-musical thing” in order to successfully hear the piece. This discussion could easily tangent into a take-down of programmatic music in general, so I think I’ll stop before I get too snarky.
What I take from literature are approaches to form and structure, especially when literature gets nonlinear or circular. Though yes, it’s possibly the most difficult book out there, I love the fact that Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is circular- the first sentence is the back half of the last sentence. Where my mind goes is a curiosity into whatever method and technique Joyce used to turn the story around from going “this” way into going “that” way. Another example is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which requires the reader to use 2-3 bookmarks at times. My interest in that book is not “the story,” but a curiosity as to what methods and techniques he used to navigate such a terrain. One last example is Agatha Christie. Take the opening of And Then There Were None. Slight spoiler alert, but the secret to the whole mystery is revealed in the first few sentences! My curiosity? What methods and techniques did she use to mask and get around the fact that she gave you the secret so early? I read that story on audiobook during a long drive from Nebraska to Ohio (don’t do that). The story ends and I’m sitting in the car, thinking, trying to remember the whole piece and if there were any clues. Well, the app started to replay the story, and 15 seconds later I realized that I had been told the clue from the get-go. This obviously connects to the circularity of Joyce’s work.
I also enjoy the fact that literature can leave things unresolved, can leave loose ends. However, I can see one of your upcoming questions, so I’m going to hold off on this until later.
What I will say is this: It’s the way the thing is made that strikes my interest, and I love the different ways that novels and short stories are made. Yes, I obviously understand that there are many different ways that pieces of music are made; however, when a novel (or film, like Pulp Fiction) is nonlinear, it’s clearly nonlinear and the reader or viewer understands the nonlinearity and therefore can place themselves in whatever mode they go to when presented with nonlinearity. That clarity is not so easy with music, and I think (and here’s where I’m apprehensive about saying this publicly because I don’t want to speak for composers, but oh well) composers say, “well if you can’t tell that the piece is nonlinear, why would I write it?” My thinking is “who cares if you can’t tell?” It’s a great way to approach a piece, it places you in a different creative headspace, and it can produce some ideas that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of if you were only thinking, “the piece starts in measure 1 and ends in measure last.”
Tarantino makes Pulp Fiction in 1994, confuses the hell out of everyone the first time they see it, and he’s called a genius. Cage makes a form based on chance operations in the 1950s, and people still trash his name (everyone remembers the terrible Huffington blog posts from 2012).
Have you always been interested in painting? Is the intersection of music and visual art something that came from your interest in Feldman, or did Feldman come from your interest in art?
Yes, I’ve always been interested in painting, but (and here I’m going to change your wording; I hope it makes sense as to why I’m doing so) the intersection of music and other arts came from my interest in Feldman. And my interest in Feldman came from my interest in Mahler. Yep, you read that correctly.
When I first starting getting into Feldman’s music and writings, I noticed the recurring theme of painting and rugs. And then I read his essay on Crippled Symmetry (he wrote the essay a few years before the piece) and I saw how the form and structure of rugs influenced the form and structure of his musical material. I then started to ask, “Is there a way to relate the form and structure of novels into the form and structure of my musical material?” At the time, I was reading Joyce’s Ulysses, so I grabbed my copy and grabbed my notebook and started counting. I arbitrarily chose a duration of three hours. I then counted the number of lines in each chapter (not as tedious as one might think; the book tallies every 100 lines or so. It’s based on Homer so it has the layout of an epic poem). I then divided the duration in three movements (the book is divided into three parts of 3, 12, and 3 chapters, respectively) and figured out what the appropriate duration would be. Turns out that if you take three hours and divide into three parts that correspond to the formal division of Ulysses, you get movements of approximately 12 minutes, 126 minutes, and 42 minutes, respectively. I never saw this idea through to an actual piece, but it got me thinking about form and pacing and scale and structure and all of those terms. More on this later.
Anyway, to bring it back to your question: My interest in Feldman got me interested in other arts as influence. I chose to go a different route than Feldman, but because I was now curious about all of these other arts, I was now surrounded by all of these other ways of thinking about structure and composition (in the general sense) and approach. It was also at this time that my style started to change in a somewhat drastic way.
I think one of the best yet worst things about life is that there’s so much good stuff out there, yet not nearly enough time to fully absorb it all.
I hear your music as being very conversational. I don’t notice it in terms of melody/countermelody, but more as voices playing nearly in unison (but not quite), “call/response,” instruments passing a melody from one to the next. Is that something you think about consciously in your compositions?
Please email my doctoral advisor, David Gompper, and tell him that you think my music is conversational. Please. My dissertation (which is a piece that is full of negative energy and is a whole other story for another day) was a double concerto, and David’s conception of the concerto is a narrative dialogue between soloist(s) and ensemble, and he kept saying that my music was not conversational and there was no dialogue and all these other negative things. (Don’t email him, but it felt good to read that statement; thank you.)
Alright, back to your question. Yes, I think about the act of passing lines and figures across the ensemble in a conscious manner, but I’m not as confident in saying I’m consciously thinking about conversation (so perhaps David was right?). In Essay for Voices, it’s pretty obvious that I was thinking about one human voice transforming into the next human voice, or many voices striking out on their own from and returning to one single pitch. In Piano Trio, it was a conscious effort to separate the strings and the piano, creating an idea of “they do this, they do this again, they do this a third time, and now the piano comments. Repeat.” At the same time, going back to that piece, the fundamental driving force behind the work was one word: sparse. I wanted to make a very sparse piece. The conversation (or dialogue or whatever you want to call it), is secondary.
In a lot of my work, the sketches are one or two lines (often in piano score) that then are realized in a contrapuntal way once I get to the notation software. So yes, I guess I’m very comfortable in writing that way - the way of placing lines between voices and seeing where they lead the piece. Some of my favorite music is from the Renaissance (more on that later), and I have an almost unhealthy obsession with canon, so I’m very concerned with how my lines interact with each other.
I saw Elliott Carter listed as one of your compositional influences, but I hear a striking difference between your music and Carter’s, primarily in terms of energy and moment-to-moment pacing. Can you talk a little about where the Carter influence comes in your music?
I clearly remember being a freshman in college and killing a lot of time in the music library. I loved (still do) reading through scores with a recording. It’s a great way to learn a lot about composing and also how to pay attention! Anyway, I think I randomly grabbed Carter’s First String Quartet one day and gave it a go. Now, as a freshman, I had no idea what the hell I was listening to, no idea how to make sense of it, and ended up being very very confused by the piece. However, for some reason the piece lodged itself in my brain, as if it said, “Hey, remember me? I have more things to tell you.” So, I returned, again and again, trying to figure this piece out in some way. My teachers weren’t much help; I clearly remember a professor putting up their hands in a crucifix when I asked them about Carter, and he was a cellist in a professional string quartet!. So, I kept digging. I remember the first thing about Carter’s music that intrigued me was the rhythmic play between voices, followed quickly by the metric modulations. Being a percussionist, the next stop was obviously the timpani pieces, on which I later did a little bit a research in grad school. The Carter spiral continued with the remaining string quartets, the concerti, and then the giant Night Fantasies - what a piece that is! Have you dug into it? It’ll give you fits!. I’m still following the Carter spiral; his music simply fascinates me on so many levels. But that’s not what you asked. You asked how his influence worms its way into my stuff. Here goes:
Along similar lines, is there any direct influence of Crumb? The meditative pacing, use of nontraditional timbres, and especially the use of the voice in certain works evoke Crumb, but it never loses the identity of your own music. Could you talk about that a little?
I used to be a huge fan of Crumb, especially of Music for a Summer Evening and Ancient Voices of Children; I’ll happily admit that the opening of the latter piece is very influential on how I shape a line, both vocal and instrumental (not to return, but the opening cello line of Carter’s First Quartet is, in my opinion, one of the great examples of twentieth-century melody). And yes, we both share elements of meditative pacing, but I think Crumb is a little more clear in his forms than I am. I think my biggest debt to Crumb is how to treat register. Going back to Music for a Summer Evening: There’s a moment where he places a high crotale note against a low perfect fifth in the piano. It’s easy to understand now, but when I was young, I was blown away by the fact that this chord (which I think is something like B-F# with a high F-natural), when played in closed position in the middle of the register sounds dissonant and kind of junky, sounds magical and beautiful when spread out over 5 octaves. Today, I find that I’m very sensitive to register, and I think this sensitivity comes from listening to a lot of Crumb.
One thing I took away from your artist statement is the sentence “I often do not intentionally end my pieces, preferring to allow them to stop on their own. I believe that this approach brings a satisfying ambiguity to both the creation of the work and the final product.I” think this is a really interesting and intriguing way to approach form. What led you to take this way of working?
This is the “more on that later” from the discussions on literature. Doing those initial calculations on the Ulysses form got me thinking, “Here we have a successful book with a form that works well, but when applied to music it could be considered unbalanced.” I started to question the traditional notions of formal balance and structure; David was very concerned with form, but he wanted us to have traditional balance. After Ulysses I read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It was the Wallace that really got me thinking about how we form and shape our pieces. Here’s what I came to: Infinite Jest is over 1,000 pages with 100 pages of endnotes, some of which lead you to other end notes, some of which are chapters themselves. The book, as a piece of literature, is huge; I compare it to the Feldman evening-lengths of 2-3 hours. However, Infinite Jest has three qualities that make it even more complex and difficult: 1. It has no climax, 2. It has no clear ending, 3. It is not a complete story. If the entire tale of Infinite Jest can be represented by a line from 0 to 100, the actual book of Infinite Jest only tells you, perhaps, 10-90 of the story. Or maybe it’s only 40-60. Maybe it’s only a portion of the fifthtieth percent of the story; who knows? We readers, however, don’t mind: it’s a 1,000-page book and we have invested a large amount of our time and are satisfied with the completion of the physical book. This got me thinking, “what would it be like to make a piece that only presented, for example, the middle 80% of the total piece, as if the first 10% and the last 10% were never heard?” Furthermore, I got to thinking, “What if we did this kind of formal design on a piece that is not terribly long, say 10-12 minutes?” From this kind of thinking, you get works like my Piano Quartet, That Does Show Design, Piano Trio, and a lot of the Roman numeral pieces. I don’t hear those endings as the true ending; I simply let them stop. I don’t do this all the time, but sometimes I feel like the piece shouldn’t end, as if it’s not up to me to complete it, but to perhaps take the piece away for now, letting it finish somewhere else (or never at all). Yeah, this approach might sound hokey, but it works for me.
The other part of this discussion is that from this approach I started thinking seriously about duration. What are the qualities of “six minutes?” What can you do in a 20-minute piece that you can’t do in a 5-minute piece, but also what can you do in a 5-minute piece that you can’t do in an hour-long piece? What is the personality of 7 minutes, 30 minutes, 180 minutes? Sometimes, in my weirder moments, I would try to pay attention to the passing of time, taking note of what went on in the passing of a certain amount of time. It’s interesting: I came to this approach to form because I felt I had to push back against being concerned with form.
Anyway, I really don’t like it when I can tell where I am in a piece, which is funny because one of my favorite things to teach in class is Classical sonata form. I’m like that with a lot of things: I don’t read the backs of books or read book reviews because I do not want to know anything about what might happen. I roll my eyes at a lot of new music concerts when I can hear the “big finish” or the “clear introduction.” If I know a piece is about 3/4ths of the way through, I kind of go on autopilot. I’d much rather work with and experience an elastic, anti-climatic form that doesn’t reveal its entire self until much later, after the piece is over, when you’re rolling it around in your memory. The piece lasts. Coming back to literature, I often think of those characters in Infinite Jest as if they were still working within the story - did Hal ever get better? What happened to Don?
Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on?
I do! I finished a three-hour piece for Chamber Cartel back in December and decided to take a few months off to study. In that time, I was asked to write a trio for Soprano, Cello, and Percussion. I’m almost done with the sketches for it, and will be moving on to putting the score together pretty soon. I’m also working on revising a solo double bass piece that I wrote back in my Iowa days; it’s nice to go back to work you’ve done five-six years ago, as you can bring a more objective (and hopefully wiser) approach to the piece. I also have a piece to write for myself; I’d like to make a marimba or multi-keyboard solo in memory of my percussion teacher, Ted Rounds, who passed away last year. Finally, I have this songbook that I told Quince I would be writing for them, but it always seems to be put off to next month (and then the month after, and then…)
And the always necessary top 5 - what are the top 5 pieces of music you feel have most inspired you and your music throughout your career?
Is it really necessary? Haha. I never know what to say. I’m always apprehensive about these lists, for several reasons. First, what do you exclude? What criteria does a piece need in order to make it into someone’s top five? Second, what about those pieces that you used to really love, but don’t anymore or simply have fond memories of but perhaps don’t feel it’s “top five” worthy? And finally, who is going to judge the list? You know the type: the people who spend more time self-aggrandizing on Twitter than they spend actually working on their craft. These lists are always terrible to make; you see what you’re doing to me, Jon? Haha.
Alright, enough complaining. Here goes, with two small bends of the rules:
Listen to some of Anthony's pieces (discussed above) with the embedded soundcloud links below.
To learn more about Anthony and his music, check out his website at https://donofrio-music.com/
Essay for Voices (performed by Quince Contemporary Ensemble)
V: oratorio secreta (performed by Chamber Cartel)
Piano Trio (performed by Longleash Piano Trio)
Early Reflections contains interviews with emerging and currently active composers. Check out the archives to see a list of previous interviewees!