I started composing at the age of 10 through a program that was offered in my elementary school.
When did you realize that music was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
It was probably around my second year of high school. I was already spending any free time I had doing music, and it was never something that I was uncertain about. Both my parents are musicians so they couldn't exactly give me the "do something practical" speech. They supported the idea from the very beginning.
What is your compositional method? Do you compose intuitively or do you make a detailed framework and proceed from there? How does your interest in improvisation factor in?
I do not have a single compositional method. For me, creativity must be a process of continual criticism and renewal. If I were to settle on a single approach, it would be disingenuous since my immediate response to certainty is skepticism. I sometimes rely on nothing but my ear and my intuitive responses to the sounds and shapes that I am creating, but at other times I will use extensive pre-compositional systems or experimental methods. Likewise, I will sometimes employ tried and true compositions techniques or forms and other times I will strive for novelty.
One of the most liberating aspects of my work as an improviser is that it provides a temporary freedom from doubt. Of course, one can always look back and think twice about the decisions one has made, but in the moment, improvisation must be a committed act. Especially when I am having trouble finding clarity in my composing work, I try to draw on some of the bravery that is necessary to constantly be committed as an improviser.
You are also active as a performer on viola. How does performance influence your work as a composer, or do you not separate the two practices?
Most of my activities as a performer are on the viola and are usually in a vernacular or improvisatory stylistic milieu. On a very practical level, my experiences as a performer allow me to situate the creative decisions that I make as a composer in a real physical context. My knowledge of string instruments is invaluable when I write for them, but more generally, being aware of the practical demands of playing in an ensemble or mastering a difficult technical passage helps me when writing for any instrument or voice. More abstractly, performing allows me to experience music-making as pure presence, and my familiarity with that experience undoubtedly effects how I conceive of a score that I am working on.
Where do you find inspiration for your music, both as a composer and performer?
I've never tried to define where (or even if) I find inspiration for my music. Too often, I think that the romantic notion of "artistic inspiration" is prioritized over the more mundane values of hard work and an unflinching critical awareness. My music results from those things far more than from inspiration, but I will say that when I am at a creative impasse, the best thing for me to do is to get out of the house and go for a run. Maybe that's my version of inspiration.
Which composers have influenced you over the years?
I'd have to say that the biggest influences on me have been the composers and musicians that have been my teachers, colleagues, and collaborators. Beyond that, I listen to music voraciously and omnivorously. I think that anything and everything that I listen to leaks into my music in one way or another. Some big influences have been Charles Mingus, Stephen Sondheim, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Brian Ferneyhough, Skip James, and Tribe Called Quest. Some colleagues that I greatly admire are Eliza Brown, Shawn Jaeger, Joan Arnau Pamies, Katie Young, Jenna Lyle, Alex Temple, Dave Reminick, and of course my bandmates Ben Hjertmann and Luke Gullickson.
You're biography mentions a strong interest in some popular genres (jazz, hip-hop, blues). Do elements of those genres find their way into your “classical” compositions?
As you can tell from the above list, yes, they absolutely do. I don't usually write music that is explicitly polystylistic, but I think that the influence goes way beyond style. I inherit ideas, attitudes, and aesthetic priorities from all the music I am interested in.
In the music I write – within a single piece, I mean – the style is usually very unified. When I’m creating a sound world for a piece my ear draws me to a more unified sound. But the influence of all of the music I listen to comes through in other ways that aren’t limited to style. There are attitudes, gestures and aesthetic qualities that demonstrate my interest in various genres and styles.
As an active performer and composer in adventurous music, what are some trends you've noticed in listeners of the 21st century? Do you feel people are becoming more or less receptive to experimental music?
I've noticed a very healthy interest in problematizing musical orthodoxies. Of course, this is nothing new, but there seem to be several people all across the aesthetic spectrum convincingly asking the question "why do I have to do it that way?". I believe that a healthy musical community is one in which a plurality of viewpoints and approaches can flourish, and I'm optimistic about the prospects for that in today's musical landscape. I don't have much first hand knowledge of how receptive people "used to" be to experimental or avant-garde music, but in my own experience, most people (even those with very little musical knowledge or education) are receptive to music that is challenging or unfamiliar. It is those people that have extensive musical education or strong interests in a particular kind of music that object to anything that strays from their definition of what music should be.
You were recently selected for a Barlow commission. Can you talk a little about what your plans for the work you will write for that?
The piece is a 30-minute string quartet for the Spektral Quartet. I’ve worked with them several times, but this is a much bigger piece than what I’ve done before. The piece uses transcriptions of the vocal delivery of standup comics as a source of musical material.
Transcribing speech is something really interests me. Outside of the meaning of words there is so much expressive information in the way we speak and those qualities are exaggerated when it comes to standup. I believe that we interpret these extra-linguistic cues in the same way we interpret music. It is the fact that this musical sensibility is at the heart of every act of vocal linguistic communication that interests me.
Name your top 5 pieces of music, any genre, any time period.
With the reservation that, like any top 5 list, this is going to be insufficient:
Igor Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex (1927)
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mikrophonie I (1964)
John Coltrane: Sun Ship (1965)
Joni Mitchell: Hejira (1976)
Tribe Called Quest: Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996)
For information about Chris and his music check out his website: http://www.cflmusic.com/
Below are two of Chris' pieces, one of his original concert works and one with his group Grant Wallace Band.